Saving Voicemail From Extinction
By Eric Lin, Mon Nov 01 23:30:00 GMT 2004

Although society is now becoming accustomed to time shifting entertainment, it is becoming less tolerant of doing the same with communication.


Voice is still the killer application on mobile phones but, especially with younger generations, it may not be the sound of voice that is driving its success. A new study sponsored by Mobeon, a company which delivers messaging servers, has found that there is a growing generation gap between voicemail users and those who opt to send a text instead. When younger generations are faced with a an outgoing message, they often hang up and send a text, or they skip the call altogether and send a text message to begin with. Older generations, especially those who grew up with answering machines and other asynchronous communication, don't mind leaving a message. However even more active older users are finding dialing into voicemail tedious and there are times when a text message would be more appropriate.

Companies are looking to supply operators with ways to maintain interest in voicemail across generations. Spinvox has an application to help traditional voicemail users adapt to those who prefer text messages. When a caller leaves a message, it is transcribed and then sent to the recipient's phone as a text. Spinvox believes this is far more convenient for mobile users, who are often too engaged in something else to call in to a server for messages, and can even get caught in a loop of missing calls while checking voicemail. Instead, they can simply glance down at their handset and get all the pertinent details without significantly interrupting anyone. The company also claims that 85 percent of the people they had questioned had to listen to voice messages at least twice on most occasions in order to understand what was said. Background noise or poor signal strength on either side ruined the experience.

The clarity of a text message is superior to that of a voice message in most cases. However it seems that more of the arguments in favor of text messages these two companies have found all exploit the fact that an SMS comes directly to the recipient's handset. It is not only that this generation wants to receive personal messages on their personal device, but also because they are accustomed to an end to end experience. Young users no longer log in to server to retrieve their email, and they share files over peer to peer networks (P2P) as well. So why would they want to log in (or call in) to a server just to get a voice mail? There's usually more usable data in a text message than voicemail, and it's certainly easier to respond to either by either text or with a phone call.

Openwave is approaching the youth market's distaste for voicemail not by making it P2P, but by making it a richer media. It is offering a video voicemail application that allows users to create outgoing video away messages (The voicemail equivalent of a ringback tone, maybe?) and callers can leave a video message of their own for the absent party. Openwave has done studies of this system in three US markets as well as additional European locales, and has launched on TMN in Portugal. Despite the fact that like traditional voicemail systems, users have to "call in" for their messages, the most enthusiastic responses have been from young users. They see it as a way to further personalize the calling experience, especially the outgoing message. The incoming messages certainly offers richer content than voice or even text, another big factor for the youth market, and that may be a key to its success.

Video Voicemail is still limited to callers on a specific network, limiting its advantages over Video MMS or email, especially in Europe where MMS agreements are finally emerging. One advantage that remains may be cost. Video voicemail could prove less expensive than MMS, just like WAP Push has. Although many operators give regular voicemail away for free, especially in North America, the there is different cost advantage to sending a text message over a voicemail -- time. Text messages and Video voicemail both convey more data in less time. They reduce a lag in communication, and that instantaneous environment is exactly what has made voice so successful.