Technology

Scott Kirsner | innovation economy

I come to bury voice mail, not to praise it

If a message is left in a voice mailbox, and no one hears it, what was the point exactly?

Voice mail technology (originally dubbed the Speech Filing System) was born in the early 1970s at IBM Research, but in 2016, it seems to be heading for hospice care. Businesspeople are using texts, e-mail, Twitter messages, the communications app Skype, and collaborative software like Slack to get people’s attention, fast.

Be honest: When was the last time you dialed in to your voice mail? Did you love listening to the rambling messages, trying to make out people’s names, and waiting for the caller to finally mention a phone number (but then say it too fast)? Just for kicks, I picked up my phone just now and discovered an even dozen messages, dating back to early June. If I’d listened to them sooner, I could’ve gotten an early ride on the new virtual reality roller coaster at Six Flags New England. At 77 miles per hour, the coaster moves much faster than the voice mail message that invited me out to Agawam.

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I’d been feeling guilty about my voice mail habits. But then I realized that I still have outgoing messages that sound like they were recorded in 1985 — sorry I couldn’t pick up, please leave a message — when everyone else has begun to actively discourage people from depositing diatribes at the sound of the tone. Instead, they suggest sending an e-mail or text message.

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“I refuse to listen to voice mails or answer them,” Zoe Barry told me in early June. “Please, just text me.” Barry, 31, is chief executive of ZappRx, a Boston-based startup focused on making the medical prescription process more digital.

She said she didn’t think the aversion to voice mail was a generational phenomenon. “I think it’s something you see among tech-enabled workaholics, who are very mobile,” she said. “They’re giving it up, regardless of age. The people on my board are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I don’t see any of them using voice mail.”

The emerging etiquette when you dial a number and land in someone’s voice mail is to hang up and send a text message or e-mail, Barry said. That lets recipients glance at their phone and know in a sentence or two what’s going on, and how they should prioritize it.

Barry isn’t alone in being vehemently anti-voice mail. Stella Garber, vice president of marketing at the software company Trello, told me when I surveyed people on Twitter that she hasn’t listened to one in three years. Matt Britz of Minerva Biotechnologies wrote that “leaving a voice mail is one of the meanest things you can do to someone.” Dell’s Matt Baker said there’s no way to turn his work voice mail off, but he leaves callers with instructions about better ways to reach him.

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Via e-mail, Tom Hopcroft, chief executive of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, told me the trade association is in the process of switching phone systems, and so has gone several days without working voice mail. “It hasn’t really affected us,” he says. “I’m sure that we’re missing a few calls, but we are all so used to using cell, text, e-mail, etc.”

Many executives told me they use systems like Google Voice, and forward their calls to it so voice mails can be transcribed and sent via e-mail or text message. One advantage of that approach, says Pat Kinsel, chief executive of the startup Notarize, is that all your voice mails are searchable.

Raj Aggarwal says that he used a voice mail transcription service for years, but that he mostly replied to messages by e-mail and text. As a result, “my contacts became trained to not leave me voice mails,” said Aggarwal, chief executive of Localytics, a mobile app analytics startup in Boston. “My parents are the big exception — I still play voice mail tag with them and it’s frustrating.”

A big reason for the shift away from voice mail, says Steven Kokinos, is that people are time-crunched: It takes time to dial in to most voice mail systems, listen to the messages, take notes, and delete. Kokinos is chief executive of Fuze, a Cambridge company that provides cloud-based calling, messaging, and video services. But terse texts and e-mails can sometimes feel “not that personal, and it can be easy to misinterpret the tone,” Kokinos says. As a result, his company is seeing an increase in videoconferencing, where you can see facial expressions, hear tone of voice, and be sure someone isn’t distracted by Facebook when you are talking to them.

The inventor of e-mail, Ray Tomlinson, died earlier this year, and I was curious about the inventor of voice mail, Stephen Boies, who developed the original system at IBM in 1973. Turns out he is alive and well, and I reached him by phone after sending him a message on the business networking site LinkedIn.

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Boies told me that he was motivated by the desire to explore useful, non-information-based tasks that computers could do, like handling speech and images. The early systems boasted features that have since disappeared, like the ability to automatically skip past pauses in messages, and to check whether a message you’d sent out had been listened to yet.

‘Contacts became trained to not leave me voice mails. My parents are the big exception — I still play voice mail tag with them and it’s frustrating.’

Raj Aggarwal, Localytics chief executive 

But rather than standing up for the enduring role of voice mail in business culture, Boies admitted that “voice mail was a wedge technology — good for some period of time, and then squeezed out by other technologies, like smartphones and e-mails.” The year he retired from IBM, 2001, was coincidentally the year that the number of e-mails sent surpassed voice mails.

Boies isn’t completely retired, though. At 73, he develops apps now, like the myNaturalist iPad app for birders. And “like everyone else, I have limited usage of voice mail,” he said. “I do check it on my smartphone, and I have it on the home phone. But nobody I’m interested in calls me on my home phone.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.