Note: This product was updated on December 7, 2007 to include descriptions of the full software feature set.
I'll come right out and say it. The biggest problem with my first experience with YouMail may have been my own human error, or bad timing. The biggest problem with my second experience is a controversial capability I tackle later on in the review--so keep reading!
In my original review of the voice mail system that lets you manage voice messages online, I said YouMail had a lot of potential, but wasn't delivering on its promise of catching my voice mail messages. It could be that I skipped a beat, and missed punching the crucial star (*) key when entering YouMail's phone number into the Motorola Razr V3 handset I tested with. Or, offers YouMail's PR representative Derek Brookmeyer, I may have actually done this as the signal cut out, in which case YouMail would not have completed my voice mail forwarding, and Verizon would not have warned me the action was unsuccessful.
So now, the complete review:
YouMail's concept fits snugly into the intersection of two meta trends--personalized greetings (such as Vringo) and online mobile management (such as Dashwire). However, since you program YouMail to take over native voice mail duties, it involves a lengthier time investment up front.
YouMail users receive notification of new voice messages from both text and e-mail (you can disable that if e-mails start building up.) Checking voice mail on your mobile phone reroutes you to YouMail's service, which plays your message, and which gives you options to reply, save, delete, or skip messages, or change your individualized greeting for the caller.
Clicking the e-mail notification opens a new YouMail.com window and plays the voice message. On YouMail.com, voice messages are indeed handled like e-mail, with the regular functions to save, trash, flag, and sort messages. Replying to a message sends the caller either a text or an e-mail wrapped in YouMail's branding, your choice. Users are also able to record customized greetings for select callers, a really unique surprise for a buddy. Or a nasty one, depending on the message you leave. I'm imaging high school break-ups via YouMail: "If you're wondering why I'm not picking up the phone, it's because we're over!"
In addition to YouMail getting interactive with a hands-on approach to voice mail management, it also goes Web 2.0. with a few publishing tools. This is, perhaps, a little too chic for comfort. Users who enable message sharing can choose to broadcast voice mails they receive by e-mailing the message, linking to it, embedding the WAV or MP3 file onto a Web page, or publishing it to Digg, Del.icio.us, Furl, or Spurl with a single click.
While YouMail's privacy statement promises to shield your e-mail address and phone number, it says nothing about walling off your voice content. In fact, YouMail stands behind sharing, explaining to me in a PR conversation that there's little difference between YouMail's message broadcasting capabilities and the tape recording taken of Alec Baldwin's incriminating voice message left on his daughter's cell phone. If I had let that PR call go through to voice mail, I could have embedded it here.
The comparison doesn't inspire much confidence, and it's YouMail's biggest flaw. As much as I'd love receiving a sweet or funny voice note directed to me when I call a friend, I cringe at the thought that any message I leave them could be so swiftly distributed. Of course, with a few tools, anyone is capable of digitizing a voice message that anybody else leaves, but the fact that callers have no choice in the really simple publication of their voice message could, at the very least fuel some individual embarrassment, and at the most, fuel an ugly debate about digital voice rights. For now, as with e-mail messages, letters, and other forms of private communication-gone-public, it comes down to a users' judiciousness and sensitivity.
Apart from that, YouMail's free voice mail management is a well-integrated solution for making more out of mobile messages. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile subscribers can most easily try YouMail for themselves by following directions online. Have your phone ready. Sprint subscribers have to ask a customer service representative to implement the voice mail forwarding to YouMail's central number. Do this only if you have minutes to spare.
How do you like YouMail? Tell us your take on the service in the comments below.