Remember that little box people used to buy that sat next to the phone, and when you didn't answer an incoming call the box would play a greeting and then record the caller's message? They used to be called answering machines. (Ok, they still exist, built into those cordless phone systems you can buy.) The best feature of the answering machine was the ability to screen your calls, and pick up the receiver if the calling party said something interesting enough. The dawn of voice mail provided directly by the service providers eliminated the need for the box, but also eliminated that distinct feature.

No longer. Embarq just rolled out a call screening feature (at no additional cost) that works with its voice mail service. When a caller begins to leave a message, the phone emits a special ring, at which time the recipient can pick up the handset, listen to the message as its being recorded, and engage in conversation by pressing any button. Embarq claims to be the first communications company to provide such a service.

Embarq has been making the effort to keep its landline business relevant in the face of cable triple-play and wireless substitution. I think it's a smart move. Is call screening going to stem the loss of telco access lines on its own? Not a chance. But it makes sense to provide more value and unique features for those consumers/families that do want a fixed line at home.