Tired of wading through 5 minutes' worth of voice mail to hear a vital message from your boss? A gaggle of new services, including GotVoice, SimulScribe, and SpinVox, address the problem by turning voice recordings into digital audio or even text files you can access via the Web or e-mail. Using caller ID to identify the source, they let you process the most important messages first and the rest when it's convenient.
I tried some services and found that they can be useful for business people who typically wade through at least half a dozen messages several times a day. But there are a few drawbacks, and casual voice-mail users will probably find the most robust, fee-based offerings too pricey.
The latest wrinkle in this area is the use of speech-to-text technology to convert voice mail into text messages. SimulScribe leads the pack with a $US10-per-month service that transcribes up to 40 messages a month, after which you pay US25 cents per call.
That can get expensive if you have enough messages to benefit from the service. In my tests, however, call transcripts were quite good, meeting the company's claim of 90 to 95 percent or better accuracy. The transcripts arrive via e-mail (along with a digital audio file of the message) within moments; you can also access your messages and audio files over the Web.
SimulScribe forwards your unanswered calls to a phone number that it assigns to you. You can still access and manage your voice mail via cell phone (but not through your carrier's usual voice-mail key). You may not be able to use SimulScribe with carriers for which call forwarding is problematic, and you may be stuck with long-distance or call-forwarding fees. In addition, because your voice mail is no longer integrated with your cell phone service, you may not realize that you have new messages unless you opt to receive SMS notifications, which also could be costly.
Most of these problems go away, though, if your carrier partners with SimulScribe; Vonage, for example, now offers it as a premium service.
Simulscribe recently rolled out the free beta of a variant called SimulSays for BlackBerry Pearl and BlackBerry 8800 devices; a Windows Mobile version should be available by the time you read this. SimulSays allows you to manage digital audio recordings of your voice mail on your handset without having to call your voice-mail number; but you must subscribe to SimulScribe to receive text transcripts as well.
United Kingdom-based SpinVox, a speech-to-text service that hasn't fully launched in the United States, claims to transcribe not just voice mail but also memos, blog entries, and SMS text messages that you dictate into your cell phone. However, it offers no Web interface - you get transcripts via e-mail or text message - and you don't get an audio file (you must access your voice mail as usual to hear it). We were unable to test the service's voice-mail capabilities.
GotVoice takes a simpler approach that has universal inbox appeal: It calls your usual voice-mail numbers, records the messages, and presents them to you (using caller ID to identify the senders) as digital audio files in a Web interface. The service automatically checks for voice mail three times a day on up to two phones and notifies you through e-mail when messages are waiting. You can also initiate up to 12 voice-mail checks daily.
On top of that, GotVoice lets you send up to 15 voice-mail messages a month to groups of up to five phones - useful for quickly notifying family of a schedule change, say.
The free GotVoice service is supported by Google-like ads that appear when you play voice-mail files. A $1US0-a-month premium service eliminates ads, supports three phones, and ups usage limits.
Another free service, CallWave also generates digital audio files from voice mail. But like SimulScribe, CallWave works only if you can forward your unanswered calls, and it supports only one phone number. (The company recently announced a speech-to-text service called Vtxt that promises to transcribe only enough of a message to help you decide whether it's important.)
Services like these that depend on voice input are just getting into high gear; they can be pricey, and you may find that they take longer to tell you about new messages than the traditional system does. But if your voice-mail inbox is chronically overstuffed, one of these services might help you dig through it.