Push the hash mark - what's that?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Tim Jackson reviews the latest in voice-mail systems and decides to give them a wide berth until they become common currency Hello. None of the family is in right now, but you're connected to our new home voice-mail system. If you want to leave a messagefor Tim, press one. To leave a message for Emily, press two. To reply to an invitation to Noah's birthday party, press three. To hear a list of what's on the menu, press four. For a faxed map of how to get to us, press five and then hit your start button. To reach us on our bleeper...

Yes, you've guessed it: voice-mail, formerly the preserve of big companies, could be poised to become the latest yuppie gadget. If that's a surprise, consider the precedents. Telecommunications technologies tend to follow a familiar path of adoption. First comes astonishment and incomprehension; then the show-off stage, when the buyers are a well-heeled and gadget-mad minority (as with home faxes now). Then comes the stage when normal people begin to realise that the technology might be useful (as with mobile phones). Then comes mass marketing, when the product is taken so much for granted that you can even buy it in John Lewis (as with answering machines).

Home voice-mail is still at the incomprehension stage; most people don't understand the point of it. They know that big firms, especially in the US, use voice-mail as a cheaper alternative to buying everyone their own answering machine. But why have voice-mail when you have only one phone number at home?

One answer is cost. If you have a PC, the only equipment needed is a fast modem, costing from £80, which can deal with voice as well as data and fax. Voice-mail can do all the tricks of the fanciest answering machines. You can listen to messages from elsewhere, switch answering mode on and off, and change the outgoing greeting. If you were planning to buy an answering machine, voice-mail can thus save money. It can also: save you from investing in a second phone line and a fax machine. The software can pick up the phone and deal with whatever comes in - whether a voice, fax or computer file save you from having to listen to a dozen calls from your kid's friends in order to find out whether that crucial business contact rang. The software can sort messages into different "mailboxes" for different people or different purposes, so you can listen to those you want to, and ignore the rest bleep you or call you on another telephone number if an urgent message comes in read out information, such as youraddress or a list of train timetables send out information by fax to people who ask for it, while they are still on the line calling you.

If none of these things sounds useful at home, that is probably because PC-based voice-mail systems are still in search of a market. When they find one, it will probably be people who work from home and want to maintain some separation between their working and their home lives. An added bonus is that voice-mail allows small businesses to sound to the casual ear much larger than they really are.

But there are disadvantages. Without specialist hardware that enables the computer truly to take control of the phone system, the software available on the PC cannot do any of the basic things that an office switch can. It cannot forward a call from one extension to another. Nor can it produce a ring on the extension to which it is linked. If a caller wants to talk to you directly, the software just beeps and flashes a message on your computer telling you to pick up the phone.

There are also doubts about entrusting your telephone to a computer that runs Windows, as both the software packages I tried require. Not only do you have to leave your PC on all the time to take messages; you also face the risk that the machine might crash while you are out, screwing up your fax and phone at one stroke.

That said, the systems are fun to use. The packages I tried, BitFax and SuperVoice, were both tolerably easy to set up under Windows. The setting-up is a process of deciding on a main greeting, then allocating different boxes to different numbers, assigning greetings to each of them, and deciding which will take messages and how. BitFax uses VCR-style buttons on the screen to allow you to play, fast forward, rewind and stop messages easily.

SuperVoice is better still: it has an easy-to-understand display, with numbers showing how many voice, fax and data messages have been received since the system was last checked. It also displays the number of messages received when it is minimised to anicon at the bottom of the screen.

Both programs are sold through computer stores and mail order, though SuperVoice came bundled in as a free extra with a modem I was lent by Solwise, a mail-order company that offers cheap modems. SuperVoice is more powerful but cheaper. It allows fax-on-demand, while BitFax does not, and sorts messages into up to 99 different mailboxes, compared with BitFax's nine. Although its documentation is inferior, SuperVoice also has one advantage that may be crucial on this side of the Atlantic: it doesn't require callers to use the "pounds " key on their telephones. BitFax does; to leave a message in a mailbox, you have to key in the number ("press five for Fred"), and then "pounds ". The trouble is that some people in Britain call "pounds " "hash", while others call it "gate".Americans call it "pound". For fear that people might not understand, I felt forced to leave a greeting that asked people to press "the key to the right of the zero that looks a bit like a noughts and crosses board."

Both systems, however, raised a bigger issue. Having ruled out voice-mail at home, I decided to install it at my desk at the Independent - but then chickened out. At present, the paper relies on secretaries and answering machines to take messages, and I worried about the reaction from freelancers, readers, colleagues and PR companies when they found themselves imprisoned inside my PC.

It was not the problem of "voice-mail jail", in which callers get lost in a complicated structure of boxes and messages. Rather, I feared that callers might consider use of voice-mail as showing off. That is a pity, for most people who call the Network pages want either to give or to receive very simple information. What's your fax number? How do I get to your office? Would you like to come to a press conference on Tuesday? Are you interested in my idea for an article?

Voice-mail would answer all these questions instantly, while sharply reducing the number of interruptions. But until the idea is more widely accepted, and the social risks of using voice-mail diminish, callers will have to continue to talk to my answering machine after waiting through hundreds of little beeps as the tape winds past the messages that other people have left before them.