Katherine Boehret

Making Voice Mail More Like Email

Despite spam and other problems, email is highly useful and effective. You can quickly send and receive messages, delete or forward them, and save them for reading at a later time. A glance at your inbox can tell you a lot about each message, including its subject, sender and the time it was received.

But voice mail lags behind in key ways. A voice mail still doesn’t tell you the caller’s name or reason for calling unless you listen to at least part of it. You usually can’t reply to a voice mail with a message of your own, as with email; instead, you must call the person back. And you can’t easily jump from the most recent voice mail to the 10th without listening to every message in between.

Pinger, a free voice mail messaging service, works on mobile devices, email and its Web site, www.pinger.com.

Still, voice mail has its place. A phone call is much more personal than an email, and lets you use vocal inflection to express your point, whereas email expressions can sometimes be misinterpreted. And it’s often easier and faster to speak your message than to type it out.

This week, I tested Pinger, a free messaging service that tries to make voice mail more usable by emphasizing its strengths and making it a little more like email, or like a cellphone text message. This new service comes from Pinger Inc, a Silicon Valley-based company started by former Palm Inc. employees.

Pinger works by sending messages using a quick back-and-forth voice-mail system. You dial a special number, say the recipient’s name, leave a message and hang up. The recipient is notified of this message and its sender via Short Message Service (SMS), and/or email and then must dial in or go to a Web page to hear the voice mail. He or she can reply to the voice mail by pressing “1,” leaving a message for the sender and hanging up.

You can also log into your Pinger account via the www.pinger.com Web site. Here, your Pinger voice mails are listed like emails, including the sender’s name, time sent, length and notes that you can add about each message. A green arrow beside messages indicates that you replied, and messages can be sorted by category.

Pinger is one of several new services that are trying to bring voice into the Internet age. One, called Jott, at jott.com, lets you dial a number and dictate messages to yourself, like notes or reminders, or messages that can be broadcast to others. It even tries to transcribe what you say. Another, called Evoca, at evoca.com, records and stores dictation for archiving, sharing and podcasting. It offers both transcription and translation.

Overall, Pinger’s messaging service was most convenient when I was the sender rather than the receiver. When I didn’t have time to type a message on my BlackBerry or didn’t want to bother with writing a text message on my phone’s numeric keypad, Pinger proved to be a fast, hassle-free process that took only a few tries to get down pat. And it was helpful in situations when I wanted to leave a message rather than talk to another person.

But the process of receiving a Pinger message on a mobile device isn’t as straightforward as it should be. In the time needed to receive and read the Pinger text message notification about a voice mail, some users could have already received and read a text message or BlackBerry email.

I got started with Pinger by setting up an account with my first and last name, email address and a four-digit PIN. I entered my cellphone number, as well as the make and model of my cellphone.

Then, I went to the Web site Pinger.com to set up a list of contacts by entering names and email addresses of friends. I manually entered a few contacts, and then followed steps to import a more complete list of my contacts from Microsoft’s Outlook Express. Contacts can also be imported from Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Entourage and Outlook.

You can send and receive messages directly on the Pinger site, without a phone, but you need a computer with a microphone to record messages.

But Pinger is at its best when used as an on-the-go solution with your cellphone or mobile device; I quickly left messages for friends in just a few steps. After calling a special number, a recorded voice asked, “Who do you wanna message?” I spoke the name of one of my contacts, the system repeated it back to me and a tone sounded after which I left my voice mail. Hanging up automatically sends the message.

To respond to a Pinger message on your cellphone, you press your phone’s “1” button after listening to the original message and speak after the tone. Just like with email, you can forward a voice mail or reply to all recipients of the message.

But until I became familiar with Pinger, I wasn’t sure which numeric commands did what. Pinger gives as few vocal prompts as possible to simplify things. For example, if five messages are sent back and forth between two people, the entire thread of messages will play back on the voice mail before any vocal prompts are heard. This can be a little confusing, unless you remember that the “0” key always opens a help menu.

Pinger may have trouble finding an audience. The idea of using voice mail might be considered too old-fashioned for younger users, while the thought of receiving a text message to get a voice mail might be too complicated for older users. And, though Pinger is currently free, it may charge in the future.

For people who are already familiar with mobile messaging, the extra step of calling in or logging on to a Web site to get a message may seem redundant. Pinger hopes its service will appeal to those who don’t currently use text messaging or email on a mobile device, but still want a fast way to send messages.

If you prefer the personal touch of voice mail over email and text messaging, or you don’t always have time to call someone else for fear of starting an entire conversation, Pinger works well. It takes a little practice to get comfortable with how you’ll use it in your everyday life, but it offers a new way to look at messaging.

Email address: MossbergSolution@wsj.com

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