Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 16th August 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk” – The Guardian headline

Stephen Fry is stunned by the sheer brilliance of the Spinvox, which translates voicemail into text

However uninterested you may be in technology, it is likely that you use a voicemail system. If you have a mobile, then it will probably be the one provided as standard by your network. You dial 121, or 123, and dance the ghastly Menu Minuet until you’re done. The Apple iPhone has introduced a patented “visual voicemail” system, which presents a list of onscreen messages enabling you to play them in whichever order you like, but for 15 years that has been it so far as innovation goes.

But now we have SpinVox, a most extraordinary service that takes your voice messages, translates them into text and then sends them to you as either email or SMS text message. Or both.

Photograph: Steve Forrest/Rex Features

Here’s how it goes. I call you up, but you are out, or busy, and I am played your outgoing message: “Yodi, this is Dork Talk Reader, sorry I’se not in, but like leave a message after the tone, innit, and I’ll be in your face laters.” I leave my message: “Sorry to miss you, darling Dork Talk Reader. Do call back when you have a moment. I have momentous news. I guarantee it will rock the foundations of your world. Toodle-pip.” Now, if you, Dork Talk Reader, are a SpinVox subscriber, within minutes or less you will get a text as from my number that looks like this, inverted commas included:

“Sorry to miss you darling dork talk reader. Do call back when you have a moment. I have momentous news. I guarantee it will rock the foundations of your world. Toodle (?) pip” – spoken through SpinVox <*n> where <*n> refers to the number assigned to the message. You can call a SpinVox number (which will replace your old network voicemail number) and press *n to hear my message the old-fashioned way.

What is so magical and satisfying about the whole process is how astonishingly good the SpinVox engine is at rendering into accurate, grammatical, punctuated text even the most slurred, heavily accented or rapid-fire speech. In the example above it questioned the “toodle” but the word is spelt correctly.


Subscription is quick and easy. You are given a new voicemail number, which can replace the old one on your speed dial. One’s first use of the system is naturally to try to trap it into mistakes. I caught it rendering Miranda as Meranda – it did at least know it was a proper name, however, for it gave it a capital letter. Happily for the Lynne Trusses among you, the “it’s” was correctly rendered, and I have found it spot-on when transliterating phrases like “I’ve sent a message to their centre where they’re collected. Its accuracy is great, it’s amazing.” It works out the difference between “they’re” and “their”, and “it’s” and “its”, and can distinguish by context such homophones as “sent a” and “centre”. It even got “He went out into the mist and missed” spot-on. Now that’s clever.

It might not immediately strike you as useful, but once you have experienced a day where you don’t have to dial in to listen to messages, but can just glance at them, you will never want to go back. After all, the option is still there for listening to the voice. You can trial it for free, and then texts cost between 20p and 30p, according to the package ( Brilliant and British.

Not everything brilliant is British, however. Ever been annoyed about desirable products that are available only in the US? I recommend which ships American goods around the globe. For us there’s VAT and import duty, plus the website’s handling surcharge, but the dollar still being relatively weak, transactions can work out cheaper as well as making available droolworthy gizmos and doodads that can’t be found here. I had a Chumby delivered to my door ( won’t deliver outside the US): it’s a soft, squashy Wi-Fi internet device that loads customisable widget or gadget style programs. Through it will cost about £120, plus whatever Revenue & Customs adds on. An American would pay the equivalent of £90 – but then, they haven’t got the wonder of SpinVox, so nah.

© Stephen Fry 2008

Acronym of the week

VAT Very Annoying Tax