When Steve Hamrick left his last job as manager at a software corporation, he had at least 25 unheard messages in his office voice mailbox. And that's not counting the unreturned calls on his cell phone or land line at home.
It's not that he doesn't like to talk. But with the cascade of messages he receives by e-mail, texting and on Facebook, Hamrick, 29, a self-described "voice-mail phobic" from Cupertino, Calif., said he'd found better ways to keep in touch.
"I had to give up something and that, for me, was voice mail," he said. "It's cutting out some forms of communication to make room for the others."
When it was introduced in the early 1980s, voice mail was hailed as a miracle invention -- a boon to office productivity and a godsend to busy households. But in an age of instant information gratification, the burden of having to hit the playback button -- or worse, dial in to a mailbox and enter a pass code -- and sit through "ums" and "ahs" can seem too much to bear.
Many dread the process or, like Hamrick, avoid it altogether, raising the question: Is voice mail on its way to becoming obsolete?
"Once upon a time, voice mail was useful," said Yen Cheong, 32, a book publicist in New York who has moved almost entirely to e-mail and text messaging. According to her calculation, it takes seven to 10 steps to check a voice-mail message vs. zero to three for an e-mail.
"If you left a message, I have to dial in, dial in my code," Cheong said. "Then I mess up and redial. Then once I hear the message, I need the phone number. I try to write it down, and then I have to rewind the message to hear it again," she added, feigning exhaustion.
Tim Kassouf from Baltimore, 24, who calls himself "a certified voice-mail hater," said he had 68 messages, 62 of them unheard, in his cell phone mailbox. Scott Taylor, 41, a senior manager at an e-commerce company in Phoenix, said voice mail was "just totally an ineffective communication method, almost ancient now."
Like many others, Taylor advises callers on his outgoing message to try his cell phone or to send an e-mail if they need to reach him right away.
It is good advice. Research shows that people take longer to reply to voice messages than other types of communication.
Many voice mails go unheard
Data from uReach Technologies, which operates the voice messaging systems of Verizon Wireless and other cell phone carriers, shows that more than 30 percent of voice messages linger unheard for three days or longer and that more than 20 percent of people with messages in their mailboxes "rarely even dial in" to check them, said Saul Einbinder, a senior executive for uReach.
By contrast, 91 percent of people under 30 respond to text messages within an hour, and they are four times more likely to respond to texts than to voice messages within minutes, according to a 2008 study for Sprint conducted by Opinion Research. Even adults 30 and older are twice as likely to respond within minutes to a text than to a voice message, the study found.
There are no definitive studies of how many voice-mail messages Americans leave compared with earlier periods, but if the technology is heading toward obsolescence -- as many experts suspect -- the trend is being driven by young people.
Again and again, people under 25 recount returning calls from older colleagues and family members without bothering to listen to messages first. Thanks to cell phone technology, they can see who called and hit the Send button to reply without calling their voice mailbox. "Didn't you get my message?" parents ask. "No," their children reply, "but I saw that you called."
New technologies are stepping in
To cater to those with no patience for voice mail, wireless providers are busy rolling out a new generation of text-based alternatives that promise to make communication faster and more efficient.
The most popular is Visual Voicemail, which comes standard on the iPhone and is available on other smart phones, including the Samsung Instinct and the BlackBerry Storm. The application displays messages in a visual in-box, just like e-mail, and allows users to listen to messages in any order, so important calls can be returned first and others saved. Other companies have taken a bolder approach, eliminating the need to listen to messages altogether.
Frustrated by missing important calls while stuck in meetings, James Siminoff founded PhoneTag, one of a handful of companies that offer voice-to-text transcription services. For a monthly or per-message fee, messages are converted into typed texts, which are then delivered to phones or e-mail in-boxes.
"Voice mails are totally trapped info," Siminoff said. Because the average person can read at least twice as quickly as he or she can speak, and text messages require no log-ins or waiting, Siminoff estimates that textual voice messaging is 15 to 20 times faster than traditional voice mail.
Services like PhoneTag are about to be jolted by Google, which is introducing the free Google Voice. The service will ring each phone that a person uses at once -- cell, home, office -- and centralize all the messages received. Most important, Google Voice will also transcribe voice mails at no cost.
"Voice mail feels like it was a technology that was created to fill a gap -- until something better came along," Piers Fawkes, 34, a trend tracker, wrote on his company's popular trend-tracking site, PSFK.com. "And now it has."
Those in the industry expect voice-to-text messaging services to be standard in as little as a year or two.
"Text is the future of voice mail," Fawkes said.