Voice mail is the modern equivalent of an answering machine, as in "I left you a message on your voice mail."
This term is also used to describe the automated voice system that many companies use to handle incoming calls, the kind where an automated voice (see: concatenated speech) interacts with the caller and handles the directory.
Historical perspective: There was a time in living memory when there was no voice mail (the early 1970s); then came the era when voice mail was king (first customer installation by IBM February, 1982); now it is languishing (2010). Consider this editorial by Eric Effron as seen in The Week, April 17, 2009:
"Well at least it's not just me. I've been feeling a little hurt lately because my kids have been routinely ignoring my voice mails. Are they so busy, a voice in my head asks (a voice that sounds disturbingly like my father's), that they can't bother to respond to their dear old dad? But I shouldn't take these snubs personally. A new telecom industry study found that more than 30 percent of voice messages languish unheard for at least three days, and that more than 20 percent of people with voice messages in their mailboxes rarely bother to check them at all. The anti-voice mail movement is strongest among the young --a reliable indication of voice mail's coming demise. People under 30 are four times more likely to respond within minutes to a text message than to a voice message. "Stop leaving me voice mails," my son implored me. "If I see I missed your call, I'll call you back. Deal?"
"I made the deal. What choice did I have? I'm up against a force far more powerful than I: instant gratification. As The New York Times reported last week, thanks to text messaging, IMs, Twittering, and other forms of instant communication, for a growing number of people the process of retrieving voice messages now feels painfully slow and cumbersome. In fact, Google and other companies are developing services that translate voice mails into texts and deliver them to e-mail boxes. So soon enough, we may never have to listen to those dreaded voice messages again. "Text is the future of voice mail," technology trend tracker Piers Fawkes tells the Times. Who knows? Maybe someday, we won't have to actually to each other either." - Eric Effron