A call to any business or home used to mean one of three things -- an answer, a busy signal or endless, unanswered ringing. Increasingly, it now means an encounter with voice mail.

First introduced to the world in the 1970s, voice messages have become a routine part of everyone's day, if not the most common electronic message system used. At work, on your cell phone and at home, almost everyone has at least one voice mail account, and sometimes more than one.

Voice mail providers vary widely, using different approaches and equipment to achieve essentially the same goal: a convenient messaging service for phone users. Such companies provide office voice mail, cell phone voice mail and home voice mail services.

Voice mail was introduced in the late 1970s. Gordon Mathews founded a company called VMX in 1979. VMX stood for "voice mail express," and Mathews received a U.S. patent for his digital invention in 1982. VMX was the first voice mail provider service, its first client being 3M. The system recorded and managed messages using the digital technology available during the late 1970s and 1980s. Some companies still use their VMX systems.

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Voice mails are essentially digital recordings of outgoing and incoming voice messages that are managed either by an on-site or off-site system. Some users purchase systems that are operated and managed either by its own employees or on a contract basis with another company. Home-based users, such as home telephone and cell phone users, often use an off-site service, such as their phone service provider, for voice mail accounts. Others, however, purchase software that allows their PC to become an electronic message system.

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