Visual Voicemail, Part 1

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Apple's iPhone made headlines last summer for many reasons, one of which was its Visual Voicemail feature. The concept is beautifully simple: Your voice mails are presented in a list, like e-mail. It's a wonder Visual Voicemail isn't available on every e-mail enabled cell phone.

Actually, that's starting to happen, as several companies now offer some variation of Visual Voicemail. Recently, I tested Visual Voicemail and related features offered by two different services, GotVoice and Vonage. GotVoice is a voice messaging service designed to supplement your existing cell phone or landline phone services. Vonage, by comparison, is a Voice over IP service provider.

This week, I'll review GotVoice. Next week: Vonage.

Free, Premium, and Business Versions

GotVoice is available as a free service, with ads; Premium ($10/monthly), which offers more features; and Business (various plans, such as $50/monthly for five phones), which adds even more options. I tested the GotVoice Premium service for more than a month.

Unlike Apple's Visual Voicemail, GotVoice retrieves new voice-mail messages from multiple phones, such as your mobile, home, and office numbers. After signing up for the service, you give GotVoice the phone number and pass code for each voice mailbox that you want it to retrieve messages from. The GotVoice service "dials into" each voice mailbox, retrieves your new messages, records them as MP3 files, and forwards the MP3s as e-mail attachments to your chosen e-mail address. (The free GotVoice service doesn't forward voice mail messages as MP3 file attachments. You have to go to to view and play your voice mail messages.) You can then choose which voice mails to listen to, like Apple's Visual Voicemail, instead of having to listen to each new message in sequence, as most voice-mail systems require.

You can also log into and listen to your messages from within your Web browser, either on your computer on your Web-enabled smart phone. You can choose to have messages GotVoice retrieves left in your voice mailbox or automatically deleted.

The free GotVoice service automatically retrieves your messages three times a day, but the Premium and Business services automatically grab your messages every 30 minutes. Subscribers of AT&T, Verizon, and other cell-phone service providers can have unanswered calls forwarded to GotVoice, according to Bob Lloyd of the company's customer support services, thus eliminating the need to wait every 30 minutes for GotVoice to retrieve your messages. Each forwarded call will eat into your voice plan minutes, however. (I didn't test this feature.)

One Service, Multiple Mailboxes

GotVoice has plenty to recommend it. I love the ability to have one service retrieve messages from all my voice mailboxes. And all three GotVoice services offer some features that aren't unique but are certainly convenient. For example, you can simultaneously broadcast a voice message to multiple phone numbers--an easy way to, say, quickly spread the word about a suddenly cancelled meeting.

GotVoice Premium and Business also provide transcriptions of voice-mail messages. Your caller's voice-mail message is transcribed into text, which is inserted into the body of the e-mail or SMS text alert that notifies you of each new voice mail. This can save you a lot of time, because you can quickly scan a message instead of having to listen to it. In my tests, GotVoice did a good job transcribing voice mail messages but wasn't as accurate as Vonage's Visual Voicemail transcription service.

In addition to forwarding messages as MP3 files, GotVoice Premium and Business include a cool Podcast feature that lets you automatically download the MP3 files into Apple iTunes. You can then sync those messages with your iPod and listen to them.

I also picked up GotVoice e-mail alerts on my Palm Treo 755p. Unfortunately, the MP3 file attachments played back through the smart phone's speaker instead of its built-in earpiece. To listen to a message in privacy, I needed to have my earbuds handy, which I don't always remember to carry. I could read the transcribed text of the message in e-mail, of course, which helps minimize this inconvenience. I could also dial into my voice mailbox and listen to the message, which I sometimes did.

Worth It or Not?

The free GotVoice service is too limited to recommend. GotVoice Premium has its limitations, too. Unless you can forward unanswered calls directly to GotVoice, you may have to wait 30 minutes or longer to receive an e-mail notification of a new voice mail message. In my experience, it can take even longer if you opt to have your voice mails transcribed into text. That kind of delay, in this fast-paced business world, may outweigh the service's conveniences. But if you have trouble keeping up with multiple voice mailboxes and would like the convenience of reading your messages, instead of actually having to listen to them, GotVoice may be worth a try.

For More Information

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Palm's Treo Lite: Palm recently announced the Centro, a Palm OS smart phone that's smaller, sleeker and more colorful than its Treos. And after a bunch of rebates, the phone is available for as little as $100 (though it lists for $400). The Centro comes in red or black and is aimed at a young consumer audience. But is it too safe for that market?

One Laptop Per Adult? From November 12 to 26, you can buy one of those famed $100 laptops designed for kids in developing countries. The catch: The laptop--which has been earning raves from kids and adult critics alike--will cost you $400. The price includes two laptops: one for you, one for a child. But I'm wondering, why not make a similar laptop for adults too?

Verizon Goes After the iPhone: Verizon Wireless recently announced three new cell phones for the holiday season. One of the handsets, LG Electronics' Voyager, is clearly designed as an iPhone alternative. The Voyager offers faster wireless Internet access than the iPhone, as well as a large touch screen and full Web browser. But Verizon Wireless's chief marketing officer may have made an overstatement in his assessment of the Voyager's ability to do battle with the iPhone: "We think (the Voyager will) be the best phone ... this year. It will kill the iPhone," he said.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.
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