You are walking out of a shopping mall with your children. A little electronic voice in your ear says: "Go back inside. A robbery is taking place in the parking lot." You turn around and walk inside, as do lots of other people around you.
At the Vienna "data mining" company MicroStrategy Inc., this is a vision of the future, not to mention a potentially very good business. Information that would be of intense interest to you personally -- a police radio's report of a crime in progress -- is relayed in seconds, rather than going to waste.
Last month, MicroStrategy announced a group of corporate partners -- including the Nasdaq stock market, online news service washingtonpost.com and pager company Metrocall -- as the first affiliates of its any time, anywhere personal information network, Strategy.com.
It plans to start modestly, later this month, with such services as real-time tips about financial market movements conveyed over the Internet, cell phones and pagers. Down the road it hopes to go wireless, eventually having synthetic voices giving you tips through a tiny earpiece: traffic jams on the road ahead of you, delays in the flight you're supposed to board, the absence of a quart of milk in the family fridge.
The person bringing those companies together is Michael Saylor, chief executive of MicroStrategy, who has no smaller goal than changing the way we live. Saylor shrugs at suggestions that privacy might be infringed by a huge "all about me" database, or that life's serendipity would vanish.
"I believe in fate," said Saylor. "But all things being equal, I'd rather not be standing in front of a truck when it comes down the street."
There are now eight affiliates of the system, which also include USAToday.com, Internet service provider Earthlink and investment bank Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. of Arlington. These companies pay a sign-up fee to MicroStrategy and then split royalties with them that differ with each deal.
Howard Lefkowitz, vice president of business development at Earthlink in Pasadena, Calif., said he thinks Strategy.com is one of the better ideas he has heard because there's a real consumer demand for it. "I get 100 e-mails a day with the next big thing and they're wrong," said Lefkowitz. "Technology people will make flying salt and pepper shakers if they can."
Wireless communications have advanced far enough already to make the earphone concept technically feasible. The harder job is to sort out the information, assure it's reliable, and tailor it in microseconds to each customer. MicroStrategy will invest $100 million over the next two years to build this system, said Saylor.
Quite a chunk of cash. But Saylor said he expects Strategy.com to make the company a minimum of $10 million in 1999. "Weather published in your paper is worth a penny, but weather delivered to you on the soccer field 10 minutes before the hailstorm hits is worth a lot," said Saylor.
Wall Street already likes these predictions. Merrill Lynch analyst Christopher Shilakes put out a report titled "Landing the Big Kahuna" when MicroStrategy announced a related deal in June with online stock broker Ameritrade to develop personalized information services.
"It's a brand new business line . . . a very interesting model for potentially large revenue over the next two to three years," Shilakes said in an interview. "It's clearly resonating with some very large partners that this idea is for real."
Since its founding in 1989, MicroStrategy has made its money scouring huge databases for corporations, pulling useful information out of unwieldy amounts of data. It had revenues of $106 million in calendar year 1998.
The launch of Strategy.com marks the culmination of a three-pronged strategy for the company: the core business of data-mining, and an "e-business" that will include deals with large corporations to create customized software, are the other two parts. Company leaders hope the new businesses will pull in much, much more revenue than the old.
Saylor said MicroStrategy had looked at the success of personalized data collection by such companies as Amazon.com, whose computers keep records of books that people buy online and use that information to pitch them on other titles. "So we started to ask the question `How do we get embedded into everyone's life?' "
It's better to have a service that a million people pay $1 a month for than a piece of software worth $1,000, Saylor says.
Only about 30 of his company's 1,215 employees are dedicated now to the e-business, and just 60 to Strategy.com. But Saylor said it hasn't been simple taking his company in a completely different direction. Many employees believed the core business should continue getting most of the resources. Those who criticized the new plans, however, have softened now that they see more details emerging, he said.
"There's always a bit of healthy skepticism," said Saylor.
Still, Strategy.com is likely to get a few privacy advocates up in arms. If you agree to be notified about everything, then your medical information, travel plans, employer data and what kind of dessert you like best could all be collected in a central data base.
Saylor's answer: "If I was sitting in front of Congress right now testifying, I would say it's appropriate for the government to regulate this industry just like they regulate banks. It would be perhaps either naive or hypocritical of me to think that we're going to be able to ensure that there's never any abuse of this information. On the other hand, the solution . . . is a free capital market which squeezes out bad clothing designers, shuts down bad developers and runs bad banks out of business."
What it is: A network that delivers customized and up-to-date information -- such as on investments, traffic and weather -- via e-mail, pager, fax, mobile phone, telephone and personal digital assistants.
When service begins: This month, through pagers and cell phones.
Affiliates (those offering Strategy.com's service): Nasdaq, Metrocall; washington-post.com; USAToday.com; Earthlink; Friedman, Billings, Ramsey; Cendex; Community of Science
Cost of system: MicroStrategy says it will invest $100 million over the next two years, and that the company expects to make at least $10 million from it this year.
CAPTION: Nick Orolin, Farrukh Khan and Michael Saylor of MicroStrategy last Wednesday celebrated the upcoming launch of the Strategy.com service.