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Voice Mail Driving You Crazy? Get It In Writing

One of the newest convergence points of mobile phones and the Web is a group of services that convert your voice mail to text and send it to your e-mail in-box.

Why can't voice mail be more like e-mail?

If you get a lot of voice mail, you know the problems. You can't get an overview of your messages -- you have to deal with them one at a time, in order. You can't see who's called you. You can't prioritize, or work with your messages in random order the way you can with your e-mail, for example.

That's where the Internet comes in. The telephony revolution that began with VoIP has changed the way we use telephones by combining them with Web-based management applications. (See, for example, Review: Tangling With Twitter and Review: 6 Skype Alternatives Offer New Services.) Voice mail is an obvious target: All you have to do is turn those messages into text and send them to your in-box.

And that's exactly what several new services do. Once you sign up for the service and configure your mobile phone account, you get your voice mails as text in your e-mail. After that, you can work with them as you would any e-mail messages. You can ignore the inconsequential ones and jump right to the important ones. You can deal with the simple ones with an e-mail reply or, depending on the service, you can write a response that's delivered as a voice mail, or click on the caller's number and be connected for a callback.

This article looks at five Web-based services that do some kind of speech-to-text conversion. Some of the companies also offer related services, like letting you speak a message that's converted to text and posted to your blog, or converting faxes to e-mails:

  • Jott doesn't deal with voice mail at all, but it's included here because it does several related things, such as letting you speak short messages that are converted to text and show up in your e-mail as reminders to self, as Twitter posts, or as blog entries. Jott messages also can be sent to groups defined in your contacts list.

  • SpinVox does voice-mail-to-text conversion and adds Jott-like messaging services.

  • GotVoice combines voice-mail-to-text and outbound messaging, and includes features that let it work where other services won't.

  • CallWave makes its voice-mail-to-text service the centerpiece of an interesting phone management application.

  • SimulScribe is a no-frills voice-mail-to-text service that makes up in quality what it lacks in variety of features.

Many of these services are aimed at businesses or mobile service providers and charge for their services, but all offer a free version as an introduction to what they can do.

Conditional Call Forwarding
How do these services work? Basically, they replace your provider's voice mail system with their own. They do this by resetting your mobile phone's "conditional call forwarding," a service that can redirect calls that go unanswered if you don't pick up, if your phone is off, or if you are out of reach.

If you elect to sign up with one of these services, then your voice mail no longer reaches your phone -- it is instead "rerouted" to the service, and translated into text. (There is one exception -- GotVoice can optionally deposit messages in your phone's voice mail system after it transcribes them).

Fortunately, you're not locked in. You can disable and re-enable conditional forwarding any time you want through your phone's menus. Just make sure to write down the phone number your voice-to-text service forwards your calls to so you can re-enter it later.

Or, better yet, create speed-dial entries for them. The set-up string the voice-mail-to-text service gives you for call forwarding will look something like "**004*myvoicemail*11#" (where "myvoicemail" would be the forwarding number of the voice-mail-to-text service). To set your phone, enter this string the way you would a phone number and press "Call" or "Send." And don't worry too much about doing something you can't change back later: Sending "##004#" should reset conditional forwarding to its defaults for your phone -- check with your service provider to make sure.

The Report Card
A voice-mail-to-text system has to do several things well. One, obviously, is to transcribe the voice message accurately enough so that you can read it. The second, not quite so obviously, is to capture and play back an audible version of the message itself so that you can review it if you need to. I've assigned letter grades to each of these factors (which I've labeled "Transcription" and "Playback"). I also rate the quality, breadth, and usability of each of the services (which I call, appropriately, "Service"), and give each a final grade.

So what can these services do for you? Let's take a look.

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