Answering Machines Get the Message: Digital Is Here to Stay

Technology races along like an Indy 500 car. But the adoption of technology plods like a wagon train. It can take a long time before most people get a color TV and a personal computer.

Consider the digital answering machine.

Although they've been around for several years and are superior to traditional tape-based machines in almost every way, digital answering machines began outselling their tape-based brethren only last year. And only barely, at that. Next time you replace your answering machine, do yourself a favor and get a digital one.

Most buyers will likely go digital this year as prices continue to fall. By the end of this year, you should be able to find digital answering machines selling for little more than tape-based machines. And they do so much more.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the digital technology is that there's no tape to deal with. In fact, there are no moving parts at all. That means nothing to break or get stuck. Nothing to wind and rewind. Instead, your messages reside on computer storage known as flash memory. You can skip around to various messages as easily as changing tracks on a compact disc.

With tape, erasing messages is an all-or-nothing proposition. With digital technology, you can pick and choose which ones to keep. The technology makes replaying messages easier, too. If you hear one that you know you don't want, you can skip immediately to the next one.

One of the longtime drawbacks to digital answering machines has been the price. With tape technology so mature, consumers can pick one up for $20 or less.

But digital technology is closing the price gap. For example, Casio PhoneMate Inc. is selling a $39 digital answering machine now but plans to introduce a $29 model in the next two months.

"Do not be surprised as we go through the year to see a $25 product," says Dennis Cox, vice president of marketing for the Torrance, Calif., manufacturer.

The big decision for consumers is how much functionality to buy, especially how much storage space. Another longtime drawback of digital answering machines has been their puny recording capacity. But that too is improving. Manufacturers are incorporating memories with more than 10 minutes and, for some higher-priced models, more than 20.

That may not sound like much, especially when you can easily plug in a 60-minute cassette in traditional machines. But Casio's research suggests that most consumers don't need any more than that. The average length of a voice message is 15 to 17 seconds, so a 10-minute tape can, on average, hold 35 messages or more.

"Ten minutes is satisfactory for many, many consumers," says Stephen Knuth, president of Casio PhoneMate.

If you're running a business out of your home, you may want more recording capacity. But as digital technology continues to fall in price and methods of compressing voice onto computer memory improve, digital answering machines will offer more storage at lower prices. True, the digital compression means that the recordings aren't as good as tape, but they're clear enough.

Anyway, you may not be able to buy a tape-based answering machine much longer. Sharp Electronics, for example, offers only digital models today. And Casio, which has four stand-alone tape-based models, plans to have only one by the end of the year. Says Knuth: "1998 may be the last year for us [in tape], based on what I'm seeing."

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