Astral Musings
Superior Obsolescence
(fredness), August 2002

The analog tape based answering machine of your's truly is failing at last. So what. Why should this be the impetus for a new Astral Musing. Because finding a functional equivalent replacement has proved impossible.

But wait, the new digital answering machines sound better, don't spin for long periods locating a new message blank tape position, have digital time codes, and all sorts of other really neat features. This may as well be, but power cycling these new systems invariably causes message loss. Let me state that again. Message Loss!

So how could my circa 1980's analog tape based answering machine be superior to models currently available regarding message loss? First, because it is tape based, second because it was designed at a time when tape was not considered a 'dirty old' technology.

Tape based means that no matter what happens to the machine power messages are preserved on the non-volatile magnetic tape. Many new digital systems say they will attempt to save messages for a few minutes when the power is removed. But remove the power for more than a few minutes and your messages are toast. Invariable the power cord for a system will wiggle loose (say when a cat nudged it, or you leaned against it accidentally) thereby dropping power to the unit for a considerable period of time. Some digital machines even offer battery backup. However, battery backup digital devices elsewhere in my residence invariably run the backup battery down and are too much hassle to replace so the feature is all but useless for all but the most attentive with spare time.

Tape based machines behave predictably. To delete messages requires a motor to spin for several seconds to commit changes to tape. This is ample time for an operator to abort if delete was invoked accidentally. Even if the messages are deleted, they are still there and can be resurrected if you just forward the tape and listen. My old machine would actually make the messages new again if you did this. Digital machines will gladly obliterate your message at the slightest button press (accidental or not), and once they are gone they really are gone.

Classic tape based answer machines from yesteryear were new technology. To be embraced and accepted by first time customers at the time they had to be bullet proof, and fool proof. New digital machines are anything but bullet proof (just unplug one for five minutes and it obliterates any stored messages). New digital machines are anything but fool proof (instantaneous message deletion with no undo option).

There is no technical reason digital answering machines should be so power failure sensitive. Mobile phones and digital cameras have been using non volatile digital memory for years. A digital answering machine that recorded everything on removable/upgradable Compact Flash card would completely eliminate power failure issues. It would even allow deleted message undo if a sensible message queue algorithm is implemented. But alas, nothing like this is available on the market (that I'm aware of - see Astral Challenge if you know of different).

Residential telephone answering machines are no longer hot new technology. Rock solid reliability requires slightly better design and a little more expense. When hot technology becomes generic, it seems glitzy features outweigh reliability and ease of use.

The future seems to be central office based voice mail. This is great for small business and mobile phone users. But the inexpensive home residential bullet proof, fool proof answering machine seems to be nostalgia.

- The Astral Muser

Comments may be emailed to