March 11, 1997 10:45 AM ET

Reporter's notebook: Next generation talks a good game
By Sean Silverthorne

  BURLINGAME, Calif. -- Forget the pager. Starting this summer, a Greenville, S.C., company will begin selling a wallet-sized device that allows users to listen to their voice-mail messages over a wireless network--no need to use a telephone.

Conxus' Pocketalk device is just one of many product wannabes being discussed here at the Network Outlook conference this week, hosted by Technologic Partners, near San Francisco. Things to do with phones and the Internet are especially hot. On Monday, there was a company offering $20,000 "multimedia pay telephones," another pitching a "voice browser" for using a phone to surf the Net and a third seeking to connect hotel guests to Internet TV.

In all, some 80 companies are trotting out dog-and-pony shows for potential investors. They want to be the next Netscape Communications Corp., but most will likely crash faster than a cell phone conversation entering a tunnel.

Here's a look at some of the more interesting ideas.

Absolu Technologies ( Sainte-Foy, Quebec. Telephone companies pay about $2,500 for a pay phone, so you have to automatically wonder about a company that is trying to convince telcos to replace those with $20,000 machines that CEO Stephan Lepage calls "the first multimedia pay phone."

But the phones are far more than POTS (plain old telephone service). These machines deliver everything from E-mail to Internet access. If you need to process a banking transaction while at the airport or supermarket, the Telweb PayPhone will get it done, says Lepage.

Conxus. Starting this summer in 12 major markets, Conxus will role out its "voice pager," which uses narrowband PCS (personal communications services) technology to deliver voice mail for $15 to $20 per month, fees only slightly higher than those for traditional pagers.

"It's the next generation of paging service," says Bill DeKay, co-founder and president. His logic: If 40 million people already use pagers that deliver a phone number over the airwaves, wouldn't they pay a few bucks more to hear an actual voice message? A lot of investors think so, because the company has already received a whopping $135 million in equity investments, which it has used to purchase PCS licenses across the country.

NetPhonic Communications, ( Mountain View, Calif. The company calls Web-On-Call the world's first "voice browser." Targeted at corporate users, at least initially, the product allows road warriors to use a standard telephone to tap their company's Web site and extract information via voice software.

Web-On-Call has been on the market since last fall. Now NetPhonic is in pre-beta testing with its latest product, E-mail On-Call. "Internet access and E-mail are two of the most compelling applications on the Internet," says Ken Rhie, president and CEO.

Silicon Valley Internet Partners, Foster City, Calif. Does a company that isn't on the Net exist? Not for Eric Greenberg, whose year-old firm develops Web strategies and sites for companies in just three to six months. But it's not just for Net-less companies. Greenberg and crew help even Web-savvy enterprises expand what they have.

The company is doing something right. Its client list already includes General Motors and Bank of America.

The Fourth Communications Network, San Jose, Calif. Just as hotels have gotten around to installing modem jacks for business travelers, this company wants to take them to the next step--the Internet. Fourth Communications Network installs computers or Internet TV capabilities, called the Traveler Browser, into hotel rooms. It plans to make money both from user fees and ad sales.

The goal is to have installations in some 200,000 rooms in a few years. Fourth Communications expects to have 50,000 of those by the end of this year, says CEO Scott Lewis.

Wayfarer Communications, Mountain View, Calif. Users love "push" Internet technologies like PointCast and BackWeb. Corporate network administrators have a different view, especially when those same users are choking the network by downloading horoscopes, sports scores and the latest Madonna news.

Enter Wayfarer, with a push system called Incisa that even an information services exec could love. The key: Push out to users just the top level of a story or announcement, and let the user decide whether to click for more info. Usually, some 70 percent don't seek additional data. And information is "narrowcast" just to the departments that need it. CEO John Laing expects revenues of $8 million this year and $18 million in 1998.

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