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SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR URGENT PHONE MESSAGE DELIVERY
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION  1. Technical Field
 The present invention relates in general to a method and system for handling urgent messages. More particularly, the present invention relates to a system and method for a telephone answering system to notify a user of received urgent messages.
 2. Description of the Related Art
 Telephone answering systems range from large organizational voice mail systems to stand alone answering machines. When a caller dials a phone number and the receiver does not answer, the answering system prompts the caller to leave a message. Phone messages may also be received, particularly in a voice mail system, by having one person forward a message to one or more people. Users of the telephone answering system, sometimes called subscribers, usually learn of new messages by a visual indicator on the phone or answering machine. In a voice mail system, the subscriber is usually notified via a short-message-service indicator (such as a blinking light on the phone) that voice mail is pending. Likewise, a stand alone answering machine usually notifies the user that one or messages are pending by a blinking light. In addition, these systems sometimes provide a digital indicator showing the number of new messages that the user has received.
 Mobile telephone systems often provide voice mail capabilities for their customers. If someone attempts to call the user's mobile telephone, such as a cellular telephone, and the user is unavailable, the phone is turned off, or the phone is out of range, the mobile telephone system's answering service prompts the caller to leave a message.
 In some of these mobile telephone systems, voice mail cannot be delivered when the mobile telephone is out of range or is operating in roam mode. A mobile telephone can be in either analog or digital roam mode when it is outside its local operating area. Its local operating area may be defined by a geographic boundary or based upon the company providing service in a particular area. In these systems, the user is notified of voice mail when they are no longer out of range or are no longer operating in roam mode.
 Telephone answering systems can also be accessed by a user calling the system and, using a pin code, checking to see if any new messages have been received. In a voice mail system, a central voice mail phone number is often used by subscribers. Subscribers dial the phone number and are prompted for their office phone number (or extension) and a pin code. In a stand alone answering machine, the user calls his phone number and waits for the answering machine to pick up. When the answering machine picks up (i.e., the greeting begins), the user breaks into the administrative functions by pressing one or more pin code keys. Once the pin code is entered, the answering machine informs the user whether any messages are pending.
 Answering systems tend to perform adequately in receiving and storing messages. Some systems allow callers to leave lengthy messages while other systems limit call lengths to 30 or 60 seconds. Older answering systems store
messages sequentially on magnetic tape, while newer systems tend to store messages on nonvolatile digital storage. Large systems, such as corporate email systems and personal computer based systems, may also store messages on nonvolatile disk drives offering larger storage capacities.
 While traditional answering systems adequately store messages, they are challenged in their ability to distinguish between different types of calls. For example, critical, or urgent, calls are handled in the same manner as mundane, or unimportant calls. In addition, these systems are challenged in their ability to notify subscribers of calls. As discussed above, most systems provide simple visual indicators. If the user is away from the answering system, the user needs to call into the answering system to determine if new calls have been received. This can cause delays in responding to messages, especially urgent messages, that may be time critical.
 Mobile telephone answering systems face additional challenges. The user is often not informed of messages until the user is in range or no longer in roam mcde. This causes further delay in receiving messages.
 What is needed, therefore, is a way to notify a user of messages other than simple visual indicators. Further, what is needed is a way to discern between urgent and non-urgent messages and inform the user of the urgent messages on a timely basis. Regarding mobile telephones, what is further needed is a way to inform a user of urgent messages while the user is in roam mode or is in an area where voice mail indicators or text messages are not forwarded. Finally, what is needed is a way to selectively forward urgent messages to an alternate phone number in the event the user is away for an extended time period.
 It has been discovered that a telephone answering system can receive a priority along with a message. The message received can be an analog voice message or a digital text message. Regarding mobile telephones, what is further needed is a way to inform a user of urgent messages while the user is in roam mode or is in an area where voice mail indicators or text messages are not forwarded. The subscriber can indicate whether he would like all calls treated as urgent calls, all calls treated as normal calls, or select which callers are treated as urgent based upon caller id information. The subscriber can also allow the caller to indicate a priority. If no priority is indicated, the system can treat the call as a normal priority message.
 The telephone answering system periodically tries to reach the subscriber at the subscriber's telephone number. If the system is part of a mobile telephone system, then the subscriber can indicate whether he wishes to receive urgent messages when in roam mode. When the system successfully reaches the subscriber, the urgent message or messages are played. The user can delete the message or retain the message. In one embodiment, the user can also request that normal messages be played after the urgent messages have finished playing.
 An urgent message forwarding feature allows urgent messages to be forwarded to one or more alternate locations. The alternate locations may include a pager in which a digital message is left notifying the subscriber to
call for messages. Another alternate location may be an email address in which information about urgent calls is sent to the subscriber's email address. Alternate phone numbers can also be used, in which case the phone mail system contacts such phone numbers and plays the urgent messages when the phone is answered, perhaps after a personal identification number (PIN) is entered.
 The foregoing is a summary and thus contains, by necessity, simplifications, generalizations, and omissions of detail; consequently, those skilled in the art will appreciate that the summary is illustrative only and is not intended to be in any way limiting. Other aspects, inventive features, and advantages of the present invention, as defined solely by the claims, will become apparent in the non-limiting detailed description set forth below.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
 The present invention may be better understood, and its numerous objects, features, and advantages made apparent to those skilled in the art by referencing the accompanying drawings. The use of the same reference symbols in different drawings indicates similar or identical items.
 FIG. la is a system diagram of a caller Leaving an urgent message;
 FIG. lb is a system diagram of the voice mail system informing the user of urgent messages;
 FIG. 2 is a flowchart of the voice mail system storing a caller's message and a priority corresponding with the message;
 FIG. 3 is a flowchart of the voice mail system delivering urgent messages to the caller's telephone;
 FIG. 4 is a flowchart of the voice mail system forwarding urgent messages to alternative phone numbers; and
 FIG. 5 is a block diagram of an information handling system capable of implementing the present invention.
 The following is intended to provide a detailed description of an example of the invention and should not be taken to be limiting of the invention itself. Rather, any number of variations may fall within the scope of the invention which is defined in the claims following the description.
 FIG. la shows a system diagram of a caller leaving an urgent message. Caller 100 dials a phone number corresponding with unavailable receiver 120. The phone signal travels through telephone network 110 in order to ring the phone corresponding with unavailable receiver 120. When unavailable receiver 120 does not answer, telephone answering system 140 answers and prompts caller 100 for a message and a priority. Telephone network 110 may include a mobile telephone network, the public switched telephone network, or a private telephone exchange within an organization.
 While telephone answering system 140 is shown attached to telephone network 110, in some embodiments,
such as a stand alone answering machine, telephone answering system 140 is included in or attached to the receiving telephone. In addition, as used herein, a message stored on an answering system may be any type of message that can be left on the particular answering system. Traditional answering systems record a caller's analog voice and store the caller's vocal message in either a digital or analog form. Some answering systems also receive digital text messages left by a caller using email or a device, such as a touch-tone phone, an alpha-numeric pager, or a personal digital assistant (PDA).
 Caller 100 indicates that the message is an urgent message. Telephone answering system 140 responds by storing the message as an urgent message within voice mail storage 150. Voice mail storage is shown with two storage areas—one for urgent messages and another for normal messages. Other embodiments may store urgent eLnd normal messages in the same storage area and indicate through flags and a common index which of the messages are urgent messages.
 FIG. lb shows a system diagram of the voice mail system informing the user of urgent messages left by the caller in FIG. la. Periodically, telephone answering system 140 attempts to notify receiver 120 that he has one or more urgent messages in voice mail storage 150. In some embodiments, where the telephone answering system is attached to or integrated in with the telephone, the system sends a ring signal to the telephone or emits an audible ring from telephone answering system 140 in order to get the user's attention and notify him that one or more urgent messages are waiting.
 In other embodiments, such as the one shown in Figure lb, telephone answering system 140 is connected to the user's telephone through telephone network 110. For example, in a mobile telephone system the voicemail system is separate from the individual mobile telephones that use the network. In a mobile telephone system, the mobile telephone network connects the mobile telephone voicemail with the individual mobile telephones. Likewise, a voicemail system used by an organization often connects to individuals' phones using the organization's internal telephone network, often managed by one or more specialized computers (i.e. a PBX). In these systems, telephone answering system 140 dials (step 160) urgent message recipient 170 using telephone network 110. Receiver 120 from FIG. la may be the same person as recipient 170, or may be another person designated by the receiver to receive messages. If urgent message recipient 170 answers, urgent message 130 is played so the recipient receives the urgent message in a timely manner. In addition, if the stored message is a digital text message, the message may be converted to an audible message using speech synthesis software depending on the type of device the recipient is using. If the recipient is receiving his messages from a traditional telephone, any digital text messages would be converted to an audible signal using the voice synthesis software. However, if the recipient is using a device with a text display, such as a mobile telephone or a PDA, then the digital message may appear on the device rather than converting the text message into an audible message.
 On the other hand, if the recipient is unavailable, telephone answering system 140 waits for a period of time
to elapse (e.g. 15 minutes) before attempting to contact the recipient again. This process is continued until the recipient answers the phone and receives the urgent messages.
 FIG. 2 is a flowchart of the voice mail system storing a caller's message and a priority corresponding with the message. Processing commences at 200 whereupon the system receives a call (input 205). The receiver's telephone is rung (step 210) a predetermined number of times before the answering system prompts the caller for a message. If the receiver answers the phone (decision 215), "yes" branch 220 is taken whereupon processing ends at 225 (since no message needs to be taken). On the other hand, if the receiver does not answer, decision 215 branches to "no" branch 230 whereupon the caller is prompted to leave a message. If the caller does not decide to leave a message, decision 235 branches to "no" branch 240 and processing ends at 245. On the other hand, if the caller decides to leave a message (usually accomplished by speaking after the answering system provided tone), decision 235 branches to "yes" branch 250 whereupon the caller's message is recorded (step 255). In some embodiments using Caller ID services, the caller's ID (i.e. phone number) is compared to a list of IDs maintained by the telephone answering system. The list of IDS maintained by the telephone answering system may determine whether this caller should automatically be treated as an urgent or normal caller. In this manner, important clients can always be identified as urgent, while calls from a particular colleague can always be identified as normal priority calls. In addition, the user may decide to treat all calls as urgent or normal. If the user has decided to treat this particular caller as urgent or has decided to treat all calls as urgent, decision 265 branches to "yes" branch 268 whereupon the priority is set to urgent (step 270). If the user has not made either of these choices, decision 265 branches to "no" branch 272 whereupon another decision is encountered. Decision 275 determines whether the user has decided to treat this particular caller as normal or has decided to treat all calls as normal. If the user made either of these decisions, decision 275 branches to "yes" branch 278 whereupon the priority is set to normal (step 280). On the other hand, if the user has not made either of these choices, "no" branch 282 is taken whereupon the caller is prompted for a priority (input 285). A further enhancement can be provided by using the caller identification information to determine whether a particular caller is allowed to enter a priority at input 285. In this fashion, priority messages can be limited to those callers, such as important customers or clients, that the receiver determines may have urgent messages. If the caller hangs up or does not otherwise enter a priority, the system can set the message priority to normal. The message and priority are stored in nonvolatile storage (step 290). Nonvolatile storage 295 includes an area for urgent messages and an area for normal priority messages. As explained earlier, the messages may be stored in a common area and distinguished as either normal or urgent by setting a flag in an indexed table with an entry in the table for each message stored. After the message and priority are stored, processing terminates at end 299.
 FIG. 3 is a flowchart of the voice mail system delivering urgent messages to the user's telephone. Processing commences at 300 whereupon urgent message data is read (input 305) from voicemail storage 310. In a mobile telephone implementation, a check is made to determine whether the receiver (i.e., voice mail subscriber) is con
nected to the mobile telephone network (decision 315). If the receiver is not connected to the mobile telephone network (i.e., the receiver's mobile telephone is turned off or is out of range), decision 315 branches to "no" branch 318 whereupon the system waits (step 320) a predetermined amount of time before looping back and determining once again if the receiver is connected to the network. This looping continues until the receiver is connected to the mobile telephone network, which in turn causes decision 315 to branch to "yes" branch 322. Next, in a mobile telephone network implementation, a check is made to determine whether the receiver is in roam mode (decision 325). Because the cost of connecting while in roam mode is usually much higher than when the receiver is in digital mode or is in the receiver's local area, some subscribers may not want to receive any messages while operating in roam mode. If the receiver is roaming, decision 325 branches to "yes" branch 328 whereupon a determination is made as to whether the subscriber wants to receive messages while roaming (decision 330). If the subscriber does not want to receive urgent messages while roaming, decision 330 branches to "no" branch 331 which waits for a predetermined amount of time (step 320) before looping back and checking the subscriber's status once again. This looping will continue until the user is not operating in roam mode in which case decision 321 branches to "no" branch 333 to continue processing. On the other hand, if the user does wish to receive urgent messages while operating in roam mode, decision 330 branches to "yes" branch 332 and processing continues.
 In an implementation not involving a mobile telephone network, decisions 315 and 325 would not have to be made and processing would dial the subscriber's telephone (step 335) after reading the urgent telephone information (input 305). In a mobile telephone implementation, the processing described above for decisions 315 and 325 would occur before the subscriber's mobile telephone is dialed (step 335). In either case, after the phone is dialed, a determination is made as to whether the subscriber answers the phone (decision 340). If the subscriber does not answer the phone or if an answering system answers the call, "no" branch 342 is taken whereupon the call is terminated and processing waits for a predetermined amount of time (step 320) before looping back and checking the subscriber's status once again. This looping will continue until the user answers the phone in which case decision 340 branches to "yes" branch 343 to continue processing.
 When the user answers the phone, a phone mailbox summary is played for the user (output 345) informing the user of the number of urgent (and possibly non-urgent) messages that are pending. For added security, a personal identification number (PIN code), or other security code could be required before the system begins playing the urgent messages at output 345. If the user enters the correct code, the urgent messages would be played and if a correct code is not entered processing would be terminated. In this way, the confidentiality of the user's urgent messages would not be compromised by playing the messages to anyone that answered the phone.
 The header for the first urgent message that, was read during input 305 is played for the user informing the user of the date and time that the message was received (output 350). The message is then played for the user (output 355). The user is often given choices on actions to perform