It's one of the most maddening features of all the technology in our lives. There are so many gadgets to connect us--cell phones, e-mail, land-line phones--yet most of the gadgets aren't connected to each other.
Verizon's answer is the new Digital Companion service, which marries Caller ID, Call Forwarding and the Web. The result: no matter how you try to reach some-one, you'll likely get through. The system, launching in phases throughout the year, revolves around private Verizon Web sites that track phone calls in real time and allow users to decide, with one click, which calls should be routed to which phone as they come in. It also includes a phone service that reads out the contents of e-mail. Say you're a working mother, and your son's school is trying to call you at home (where, naturally, you aren't). With Digital Companion, an instant message pops up on your office computer with the school's Caller ID, and with one click you can forward the call to your office. If you miss the call and the school leaves you a voice-mail message, you can forward that, too. You can even program whose calls you want forwarded to which phone, and when those routings should change during the day.
Verizon is also trying to better connect its employees. Its software engineers have developed a "digital dashboard" corporate intranet that gives employees access to up-to-the-minute data on the company's performance. It's trying to connect more easily with customers at its Verizon.com Web site, too. Paying bills online is nothing new, but customers will soon be able to do far more than that--like trying to troubleshoot a problem, and if that fails, pulling up an online calendar to schedule a repair appointment. The company is even putting "Vcom'' kiosks in 1,000 7-Eleven stores so that customers can take care of Verizon business between swigs of their Big Gulp.
For New York-based Verizon executives, there's a broader message they hope to send with all these innovations. The chief information officer, Shaygan Kheradpir, recently boasted to a group of computer execs that "innovation, more and more, is no longer coming from Silicon Valley" but from companies like his. Perhaps this will register enough that people on the West Coast will start pronouncing the company's name properly. In late 2001, its techies made a presentation of an early version of Digital Companion at a Microsoft software conference. Bill Gates introduced the company as "VERAH-zahn.'' That's probably changed, now that Verizon ranks 10th on the Fortune 500 list. Microsoft? 47th.