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Indiscreet and obsolete: why voicemail is headed for extinction

Late last year, I called my mobile operator and asked that my voicemail service be deleted. Why? I was tired of getting missed calls and subsequent messages and forgetting to listen to them until long after they were relevant. I was also tired of telling (sometimes indignant) people that no, I hadn’t heard their message.

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The growing numbers of voicemail messages I hear when calling other people that ask me not to leave a message but, instead, to send an SMS or email, suggest I’m not alone in my frustration. As does the number of people who tell me they’re receiving fewer and fewer messages with callers hanging up as soon as the first strains of a voicemail message play.

In the early days of mobile telephony, when voice was still the dominant form of communication, voicemail made perfect sense. It served as the natural evolution of answering machines, allowing people to leave messages for those unavailable at the time to respond to later and enabling call screening.

Today, however, both instant messaging and email offer the same ability to reply at will – if at all – making voicemail not only obsolete, but an unnecessary additional channel to be checked alongside the plethora of text-based apps and services already clamouring for our attention.

Leaving a voicemail feels increasingly akin to sending a fax rather than emailing a scanned copy of a document – antiquated and cumbersome. A voice message that includes a phone number or email address also means remembering them or writing them down, while most mobile phones will let you use numbers or other contact information in a text message with a single tap of the display.

Worse still, voicemail requires wrestling with your mobile operator’s interactive voice recording (“Press 1 to delete”), particularly when trying to check it from a phone other than your own, which text messaging does not. And text messaging is devoid of the bill-shock risk that accompanies voicemail when combined with international roaming.

Of course, I’ve received numerous voicemail messages I’ve been glad of over the years – messages from loved ones calling to say little other than hello, drunken friends singing tone-deaf renditions of pop songs, or amusing messages from foreign callers who’ve dialled the incorrect number. But none of these are essential, and none were sufficient motivation to prevent me cancelling my voicemail service.

Text messages – whether email, SMS or IM – have other obvious advantages over voice recordings: discretion and searchability. I can reply to a text message in a meeting; I can’t check a voicemail. And, unlike voicemail, I can search text messages – assuming of course I can remember which application they came in on.

With this in mind, mobile operator Vodacom has even gone as far as offering a service called Voicemail 2 SMS that, for a monthly fee of R35, will convert your voicemail messages to text and send them to you.

That said, answering machines for fixed lines still make (some) sense, but even then, the recordings tend to include alternative contact information. Voicemail also make sense for sole proprietors, tradesmen, salespeople, those without high-end handsets and those who simply don’t like answering phone calls.

Nonetheless, our habits — like our technology — are changing, and voicemail looks set to join the ranks of telegrams and faxes in the annals of communication history. I’m all for hurrying the process along.

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