It's time voice mail threw in the towel.

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May 8 2009 5:25 PM

You Have No New Messages—Ever

It's time voice mail threw in the towel.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Since March, I've been using Google Voice, the search company's fantastic Web app that gives you a single number to connect all your phones and lets you make rules about who can call which phone when. Voice is packed with many other amazing tricks, but there's one feature that I've come to value above all: The software transcribes voice mail messages into text. Now every time someone leaves me a message, I get it as an e-mail. It's not perfect, of course—Farhad often turns into Bob or Todd. But I'll take it. Voice mail is one of the most inefficient, socially awkward, and least user-friendly means of communication out there, and I'd gladly change my name to Bob, Todd, or Sue if it means never having to sit through a parade of pointless messages ever again.

Google Voice is not the only thing killing phone messages. Every new way we develop of talking to one another—e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, Twitter, etc.—is faster and more useful than leaving an audio message on someone's phone. That's why, according to cell phone companies, lots of people only rarely dial in to their messages, and some of us have stopped checking entirely. It won't be long till we're all in that camp; the end of voice mail is nigh, and it won't be missed.

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The bill of particulars is damning. Unlike your e-mail inbox, voice mail is impossible to skim: If your phone tells you that you've got five new messages, you've got no choice but to listen to at least a bit of each one before you can decide what to do with it. In a user-interface decision that I suspect might violate some subclause of the Geneva Conventions, your voice-mail system insists on making you listen to the same instructional prompts between each message. But wait,is it 9 to archive and 7 to skip, or is that the way the work phone does it? I couldn't tell you, because every voice-mail system seems to have settled on different numbers to activate its main functions.  It's an absurdly backward mode of human-computer interaction.

If the voice-mail leavers in your life are anything like those in mine, there's often no great reward for getting through your messages, either. "Guess you're not there. Call me back." That message might have made sense in the days of home answering machines, when the main function of voice mail was to let someone know who you were and that you'd called—both things our phones now tell automatically. On the rare chance that you do get an important voice mail, your first move is to transfer the information to some more permanent medium—say, ink and paper. Unlike just about every other mode of electronic communication today, after all, voice mail can't be searched.

Over the years there have been some valiant efforts to fix voice mail. The most innovative is the iPhone's system, called Visual Voicemail. I remember being thrilled when I saw Steve Jobs show this off: Instead of forcing you to go through a series of audio prompts, the iPhone lists each message on the screen and lets you click on them to listen. That eliminates the torturous interface, but it doesn't do much for the utility of voice mail itself. When I got an iPhone, I found myself shirking off messages even more. Now that I could see who'd left them, there was no point in listening; I could just call back (or not). The iPhone, with its full keyboard, also prompted me to leave fewer voice mails for other people. If called someone who wasn't there, I could click over to e-mail or SMS and send a message that they'd be much likelier to look at.

This gets to what's so magical about voice-mail-to-text apps like Google Voice. They don't try to fix voice mail by improving its interface; instead, they remove it from its interface entirely and let you deal with each message in the same way you go through your e-mail. You can save, skim, and search it, just like you do everything else online.

And don't spin me on how voice mail is somehow inherently warmer and more human than e-mail. Speaking into a dead phone has always seemed unnatural. That's why we stammer, ramble on, leave awkward pauses. I submit that whatever finally makes voice mail obsolete will make us all sound far more human—and a little more polished at that.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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