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Today’s TechCrunch article, Think Before You Voicemail, struck a nerve with me. I’ve very often felt the same way for the exact same reasons Michael outlined:

It takes much longer to listen to a message than read it. And voicemail is usually outside of our typical workflow, making it hard to forward or reply to easily.

The big problem with voicemail is that it takes a context switch out of your normal workflow in order to dial into the system, figure out how to fast-forward/delete messages, transcribe messages, etc. This might sound minor but it really takes its toll when you’ve already got a ton of things on your plate to deal with on a daily basis.

Other minor problems with voicemail include long distance charges to dial into my voicemail when I’m traveling, and the delay caused by my tendency to not notice that I have a voicemail until the next time I make a telephone call.

So today I’ve taken a big step toward escaping voicemail. I’ve set up my cell phone such that voicemails are transcribed automatically into text messages and sent to my email (and optionally SMS’d to me). How did I do this? It was not straightforward so I am repeating the steps here for anyone who’d like to do the same.

Without further ado, here’s how I set up PhoneTag with my iPhone running on the Fido network.

Step 1

PhoneTag

The first step is to subscribe to a voicemail transcribing service. The service I ended up subscribing to is PhoneTag. There are several other services, including YouMail and SpinVox, but nearly all suffer from one big flaw — they do not work with Canadian numbers. (Don’t even get me started on how we always get shafted on technology in Canada…)

Fortunately PhoneTag does work in Canada, so they get my dollars. (Not much actually, only 35 cents per transcribed message; other plans available too.)

Step 2

Once you’ve set up your PhoneTag account, you have to instruct your carrier to use PhoneTag’s voicemail box when you don’t answer your phone. This is accomplished via Conditional Call Forwarding. In layman’s terms, you have to ask your carrier to forward a caller to voicemail when you 1) don’t answer, 2) are unreachable, or 3) already on the phone.

When you get a phone from Fido, it’s already pre-programmed to forward calls to the Fido voicemail. In this case, we want to switch to PhoneTag’s voicemail. Here’s where things get complicated a bit; I am using an unlocked iPhone on the Fido network, and unfortunately, I could not find a way to set Conditional Call Forwarding inside the iPhone’s interface. However, we can get around this by directly programming appropriate GSM Commands into the phone!

The GSM Commands I used were the following:

  1. Call Forwarding if No Answer: *61*[dest]#
  2. Call Forwarding if Unreachable: *62*[dest]#
  3. Call Forwarding if Busy: *67*[dest]#

where [dest] is the destination of the call forwarding, i.e. the phone number of PhoneTag’s mailbox. So as an example, if your mailbox’s number is 514-123-4567, then the appropriate sequence to program Call Forwarding if No Answer would be *61*5141234567#.

So, I opened up Keypad of the iPhone, typed in and called each one of the above mentioned codes, and voila; my callers are now directed to PhoneTag’s voicemail. (You’ll know you did it right if you see some status messages.)

Now voicemails are automatically transcribed into text and sent to my email, where I will see it the next time I return to my workstation.

Step 3

For completeness’ sake, rewire the Voicemail button on the iPhone to point to your new mailbox by issuing the following command:

*5005*86*yourvoicemailphonenumber#

In PhoneTag’s case, yourvoicemailphonenumber is 18007840457.

But of course we’ll never use that button again, right?

Step 4

Finally call Fido Customer Service at 611, and cancel your voicemail option, saving you a few bucks per month.

There you have it, escape from voicemail.

Now if only I could escape from email too, then life would be heaven!

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