As much as I hate SMS, I hate voicemail even more. It’s a truly broken experience.
There are three major problems with traditional voicemail:
- It’s linear. If you have 10 messages in your mailbox, it doesn’t matter if the 9th is the most important. You have to step through them one by one navigating with cryptic commands.
- The key information in a message is hard to get to. The key piece of information in most voicemail messages is who called. You often have to listen through the entire message the phone number. Or memorize what key will play the metadata.
- Message notifications are binary. On many systems, there is a single icon regardless of how many messages you have. Often I’ll let a call go to voicemail and then I’ll get another voicemail later. With the binary notification, I don’t know that the second message came in.
Apple’s solution gets around all that, providing a simple visual interface for voicemail. That’s not revolutionary; a lot of companies (including one that I used to work for) have tried to fix voicemail.
Most of these solutions involve converting voicemail to email. If you call me at the office and leave a voicemail, that message gets converted to an MP3 and sent to me as an attachment in an email. The message shows me who called and what number they called from. This makes it easy to ignore unwanted calls. (To the caller who keeps leaving me messages trying to sell me research reports: this means you. Get the hint.)
What is significant in Apple’s move is that they were able to get Cingular to deploy a new network feature to support visual voicemail. It’s another example of how Apple broke all the rules of handset manufacture/carrier relations.
In the long term, voicemail is dead. As presence and IM get incorporated more tightly into mobile devices, people will only call when they know you’re available.
AOL’s offices are a window into this future. Most conversations are done over IM and email. When we need to talk to someone, the protocol is to check their IM presence before calling.
A typical IM conversation goes like this:
“can i call?”
It may seem clunky. But it beats dealing with voicemail.