The Telephone Zone



The History of Voicemail – Press One to Find Out…

Are you tired of voicemail yet? Would you like to speak to a real person again? Are you frustrated with having to listen to all those “press this, press that” directions before you get where you want to go? Voicemail – a good thing? Definitely, for the people who use it. Perhaps not for the callers. No matter how you look at it, voicemail is here to stay.

The history of voicemail is an interesting one. So is how voicemail works. And you’ll definitely need the glossary of voicemail terms and definitions before you’re finished, to get a really clear picture of voicemail systems. So read on, and get to know the whole story.

Gordon Matthews got frustrated

One day, in the late 1970s, Gordon Matthews was on a business trip for the second company he founded, Action Communication Systems in Dallas, Texas. He was dealing with a client in Colorado, and was having a hard time contacting the home office. “I had time zone problems. I had telephone tag problems. People would call me back and I wouldn’t be there, he says. “The only reason I have patents is that I see something that bothers me. I mentioned it to my wife; I said what I need to invent is a computer so we can leave messages to each other. The other people can pick up the message, reply to it or redirect it. That’s how the idea was born.”

That’s how many ideas are born. Again, the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” comes into play here. And Matthews, being the successful and enterprising inventor that he was, went to work to develop a system that would bring his idea into manifestation. With Action’s blessing, he formed a company, VMX (Voice Message Express), as a platform for his research and development. In 1979, with a prototype in place, he applied for a patent. By the time the patent was registered in 1983, VMX consisted of a secretary, 3 software engineers, a hardware guru, and Matthews. The road was paved – now to find a car.

Matthews put himself in the driver’s seat by selling his first voice messaging to 3M, the manufacturing giant. The system allowed people to access huge, networked databases of messages in 1/50,000th of a second. And this was at the time that computers were still the size of large fridges. It was perhaps for this reason that voicemail didn’t catch on right away. It was very expensive and only large corporations like 3M could afford it. Matthews had to really do a heavy sales job trying to get businesses to understand the benefits of his voicemail system.

But sell them he did, slowly but surely. Which brings us to the negative side of voicemail. As we mentioned earlier, “automated attendants” drive us nuts. These annoying systems grew out of voicemail systems. Matthews didn’t want them to, but they did have that capability, and he was “forced” into developing it. This is how that happened:

One of the first VMX clients was Security Pacific Bank in San Francisco. The conversation between them and Matthews went like this:

Security Pacific: “If our phones were busy and not answering, could it take the call?”
Matthews: “Yes, but I don’t want it to.”
Security Pacific: “If you want to sell us the system, you will.”

Gordon Matthews, to his dying day, disliked this use of his voicemail system. Voicemail and automated attendants are two different things. However, Matthews will forever be blamed for its invention. He even has a name for it – “voicemail jail”. And we’ve all spent some time there, haven’t we?

New technology provides less expensive voicemail systems

As more advanced technology became available, the voicemail industry started to grow. The big step in lowering the cost of the systems came in 1982, when Dialogic Communications Corporation introduced PC-based voice processing boards. Dialogic quickly became an industry-leading manufacturer of voice processing equipment which, together with voicemail software, would work on industry-standard personal computers. The voicemail industry took off!

Matthews’ company, VMX, was acquired by Octel Communications, which in turn was bought by Lucent Technologies. Lucent turned it into a separate company called Avaya. The original VMX systems are still in use in some businesses today.

Business was taken care of – now what about the home?

Gordon Matthews wasn’t finished yet – he had another idea. He started researching how people used their home phones. Telling his story, he related, “I was thinking, how many times have we been having dinner and the phone is ringing with people selling things? How many times do we pick up the phone and it’s for somebody else and we have to take a message?” The answers to these questions led Matthews to the development of a system called MAXX, which created 8 voicemail boxes that could be attached to a standard phone line. This allowed everyone in the house to check their messages on their own phones at the same time, without interrupting each other. It had other capabilities, too: faxes could be routed, passwords could protect messages and a nifty “Do Not Disturb” button, when pushed, answered those annoying dinnertime calls from telemarketers.

These expanded voicemail systems became known as call-manager systems. They won the “Innovations” award at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, 2000. And Gordon Matthews still wasn’t through. One of his product managers described him as one of the many people trying to get a foothold in the future of voicemail. “There’s all sorts of voicemail trends in the pipeline,” she said. “The number one we’re working on is unified messaging, where you’d be able to access your fax, email and home phone messages all from one source.”

Voicemail’s future is promising

The voicemail family has definitely grown. Gordon Matthews died of a heart attack on February 23, 2000, but his legacy lives on. The progression from voicemail to call-manager to unified messaging is a path spurred on by things that annoyed Matthews. And he decided to do something about it, rather than accept it. That’s why he’s widely known as “The Father of Voicemail”.

Technology loves innovation, and innovators love technology. The result? More exciting developments are coming. So stay tuned. And if you can’t be tuned in, make sure your voicemail is on – we’ll leave a message!

About The Author

Gareth Marples is a successful freelance writer providing tips and advice for consumers purchasing voice mail service, epson printer cartridges and new lcd projectors. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

This article on the "History of Voicemail" reprinted with permission.

© 2004 - Net Guides Publishing, Inc.

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