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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 13:05 GMT
Voicemail message is getting lost - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

End of the line for voicemail?
Anyone in their 30s can remember when voicemail was as much of a novelty as push-button phones. But to younger folk, leaving a voice message is just passť.

Progress has little respect for innovation or technology. From their position of near ubiquity, fax machines are on a long slow decline. Pagers are about to go the same way, with phone firm O2 due to turn off its paging system at the end of 2004.

And voicemail could be next, not least because it is a technology that a generation is simply not using. Research by voicemail service firm Mobeon has revealed a huge age-related gap in who is prepared to put up with it.

"Younger people do not use voicemail," says Anthony Beswick from Mobeon Labs. "They tend to SMS and IM each other."

The reason for this is the changing types of communication that people have got used to.

"If you look at the younger generation, they have grown up in a world where information is real time," he says.

This means they have no patience with a system that demands they leave a message for someone in the hope that they will pick it up at some point in the future or that makes them call another number to find out who has been trying to contact them.

Love me, love my text messages
By contrast older people are used to communication being time-shifted and, because of this, are happy to leave messages or dial up to listen to those left for them.

One other reason that young people do not need voicemail is because they keep their phones near them and switched on all the time. They are never out of touch so there is never a need to leave a message.

"Voicemail addresses a problem that these young people never have," says Mr Beswick.

In addition, he says, young people have developed all kinds of tactics for dealing with text and instant messages that turn up when they are in a meeting or class.

This generational chasm creates a huge problem for many companies because they could end up with a situation where half their employees are leaving messages for the other half who never listen to them.

Troubled technology

Even users of voicemail have good reasons to stop, not least because of the potential drawbacks of technology.

Busy folk can get locked in to a never-ending cycle of having to listen to the voicemail messages left while they were listening to their voicemail messages. Then there are all the problems of hearing what people are saying. Particularly if they left a message using a mobile in a noisy train station and you are listening via a mobile on a noisy train.

Man listening to mobile phone, BBC
"Press 1 to listen to your messages..."
Many firms are starting to find ways around these problems. Spinvox has set up a service that turns voiced messages into text messages that are then sent to your phone. Spinvox development director Daniel Doulton said the idea for the service came about because he and co-founder Christina Domecq were tired of playing "voicemail tennis".

Research by the company showed that other people were just as tired.

Of those questioned by Spinvox, 85% said they had to listen to normal messages twice before they understood what was being said or managed to jot down numbers or contact details that had been left. Turning voicemail into text messages also helps ensure people do not offend business morals during meetings.

"Taking a telephone call in a meeting is a big no, no," says Mr Doulton.

By contrast, he says, few people have a problem with someone taking a few seconds to read a message. Far better, he thinks, to see who had called and then, if necessary, excuse yourself and have their number to hand to call back, than worry who has rung and then struggle to hear their number and ring them back.

Who knows, voicemail may end up being one of those things that sparks incredulity in the young, like getting up to change channel on the TV.

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