The Death of Voice Mail

The New York Times had a little technology piece today about the waning popularity of voice mail, and it struck a chord with me. If voice mail isn’t the 8-track tape of the early 21st century communications industry then I don’t know why not. It should be. Voice mail is one of those strange devolving products that has gotten to be more of a pain in the ass over the years, rather than less.

You could probably say that the home answering machine was the first widely available voice mail technology. By and large they were easy to use. You plugged it in, pushed record, said a few words, played them back, pushed record again, realized ten minutes later that you would never sound better than that, and finally gave up and watched Johnny Carson before going to bed. Later when you returned from some extended absence you would know you had messages because the machine was blinking. You pushed play. You listened. You erased.

Which was all too easy for voice mail marketing people to stomach, so they started to add features. Multiple boxes, separate greetings, calling number storage; the slow climb of voice mail up the Rectal Scale of annoyance had begun. Voice mail had become a pain in the ass.

The growth of the cell phone business only made it worse, because along with new features we got lots more prompting. Apparently the explosion of tiny hand held cell phones gave lots of stupid people access to voice mail for the first time in history. I make this admittedly offensive suggestion only because I can think of no other reason why the nice lady insists on repeating 20 seconds of instructions every time I dial in to retrieve my voice mail. Yes, yes, dammit, I recall something about entering my four-digit pin and pressing ‘pound”. How about you shut up now?

Voice mail is a pain in the ass. Email is not a pain in the ass. See how simple technology market prognosticating can be? Skype is also not a pain in the ass, at all. I work for a small software company that has several offices around the country knit together using email and Skype. We have a virtual PBX, with an 800-ish number and assigned extensions for everyone, and last week the owner of the company admitted to me that he couldn’t remember them half the time. When we want to get ahold of each other we email or, far more often, Skype. In fact, I am at my desk so often working on projects that if you call my aging Embarq (Sprint, with a coat of paint over the rust) landline and get voice mail, it’s because I’m on Skype.

Voice mail: it’s as relevant as a cathode ray rube, and as fun to use as a mimeograph. What’s not to love?

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