Should mobile operators give up on voicemail?

Viaero Wireless has taken a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach to voicemail. The mobile operator serving rural Colorado and Nebraska is preloading YouMail’s visual voicemail application into all of its Android(s Goog) phones, giving customers a compelling alternative to its standard network mailbox services. Viaero isn’t Verizon(s VZ), but if it sees the sense in the ceding the voicemail market to over-the-top application providers, could the rest of the industry follow?

YouMail CEO Alex Quilici said Viaero isn’t the first operator to see the value in an independent voicemail provider. Pennsylvania’s Immix Wireless has been using You Mail since 2008, offering its cloud mailbox service to all customers and distributing its more sophisticated Visual Voicemail Plus apps to its smartphone customers.

“Its old voicemail servers have basically just become plant holders,” Quilici said.

YouMail Android client

Viaero is still offering the usual dial-in, keypad-interface voicemail, but giving its customers the easy option to use YouMail’s more robust app. Opening the Android application allows customers to switch to YouMail, which intercepts all messages, downloads them as digital files to a client, where contact names, caller IDs and even avatars are displayed. Customers can save and sort them however they wish. Valero’s BlackBerry(s RIMM) and unlocked-iPhone(s aapl) customers can also use the service, though they have to go to their respective app stores to download it manually.

Visual voicemail made a big splash when Apple (s aapl) launched it on the first iPhone with AT&T(s T) (then Cingular) in 2007. In the subsequent years, numerous third-party apps popped up, but the operators primarily stayed mum. Verizon Wireless offered its own version of visual voicemail – which was really a network-based mailbox with a graphical interface – in 2008, but it slapped a $3 a month fee on the service. Though some customers may have been willing to pay for that service then, any smartphone customer today would blanch at such fee; free and better applications are available in the apps stores or online. MetroPCS(s PCS) is really the only operator to embrace new voicemail technologies, using Silent Communications’ Android visual mailbox client to link directly into its legacy voicemail server.

Carriers have watched mobile services they once held practical monopolies over – phone navigation, email, IM, etc. – practically disappear off their decks completely. Operators certainly have benefited from the shift. They may not collect revenues from the service, but they’re taking the data carriage fees to the bank. It’s easy to see them throwing voicemail to the open market as well. It’s not like they can expect to make any more money by upgrading their tired voicemail systems; customers expect carriers to provide the service for free. But such a decision could wind up haunting them. Voicemail is one of those value-added services that operators are expected to provide part-and-parcel with any wireless plan. If they abandon it they take one more step to being dumb pipes.

Quilici said he doesn’t expect operators to ever pack up their voicemail servers completely. With the exception of smaller operators like Immix, carriers will always offer some kind of basic mailbox, he said. But for the more advanced, feature-rich visual services, they’ll increasingly look to third-party companies, which suits YouMail just fine, Quilici said. The small company has attracted a lot of interest of late.  YouMail raised $4 million in venture financing in July, as well as an additional $355,000 earlier this month, bringing its total to nearly $13 million. According to the company, its free visual mailbox app has been downloaded more than 3 million times across all smartphone platforms.