Executive technology: Smart pagers

Pagers are the most popular wireless communications devices for several reasons: They are very easy to use, their batteries last several weeks, they are light enough to be carried everywhere effortlessly, and they can receive radio signals deep inside office buildings and outside city centers.
The problem is that most pagers only receive information. But so-called smart pagers can transmit information as well as receive it or match the identity of a message sender with your address book. You can still use them as ordinary alphanumeric pagers and receive callback numbers from telephone users. However, by adding some smarts, you make compromises. Batteries last barely a few days, and smart pagers are heavier — and harder — to use.
Figuring out the options isn’t easy. You have to decide whether you plan to roam around the country or stay in your metropolitan area. Each pager has an array of price plans based on message size and quantity. Here’s a sampling of devices and service offerings:PageWriter 2000
Motorola, Inc.
Schaumburg, Ill.
Price: $330
SkyTel Corp.
Jackson, Miss.
(800) 456-3333
Typical monthly usage fee: $50 to $100
Also available on PageNet as a two-way service
If you’re looking for true nationwide roaming with a small device that has reasonable battery life, consider SkyTel’s SkyWriter service using the Motorola, Inc. PageWriter 2000 pager. The pager weighs 7 ounces and has a 10-line screen on the top half of a clamshell-like setup. The keyboard isn’t for touch-typists, but it’s fine for sending one or two sentences.
SkyTel offers nationwide coverage and roaming. However, in my tests I found that some pages took hours to reach me when I roamed far from home. Part of the problem is that PageWriter has two radios: One uses the same network for receiving pagers; the second is used for transmitting messages. Both SkyTel and Paging Network, Inc. are still building their networks to handle the sending side from the pager. PageWriter has an optional Lotus Notes client. You can set up this client to forward only messages from a certain person or ones containing a special phrase or to transmit all of your messages. Using a special cradle, the battery typically needed recharging after four to six days. And the battery gauge on the main menu of the device is somewhat misleading: It could drop from “100%” charged to partially charged almost instantly.
Interactive Pager
BellSouth Wireless Data
Woodbridge, N.J.
(800) 726-3210
Price: $430
Typical monthly usage fee: $35 to $60
BellSouth’s Interactive Pager is three-quarters of an inch taller and several ounces heavier than PageWriter. Its screen is smaller (with only a four-line display) and its menus far more confusing. It also has a smaller coverage area than SkyTel’s service. It comes with two sets of batteries: a rechargeable and two replaceable AA batteries. A charge will last one or two days. The rechargeable battery remains inside the device. The AAs augment this battery and need weekly-or-so replacement. Its keyboard is awkward for typing numbers.
This pager had a few advantages, however. First, it had more reliable transmissions, with no garbled characters either sending or receiving in my tests. The other pagers had trouble with their transmissions. Second, you can send a text message to anyone with an ordinary phone number. The message is transferred to a speech synthesizer and delivered. That’s handy. Finally, it had the quickest delivery of any device. Messages came within minutes.
Synapse Pager Card for PalmPilot
PageMart Wireless, Inc.
(800) 864-4357
Price: $189
Typical monthly usage fee: $45 to $75
Unlike the first two pagers described here, the Synapse is just a one-way device. But it solves two problems. First, for those of you who carry a PalmPilot organizer, it saves space, because the pager is a small circuit card made by Motorola that replaces the memory card of all PalmPilots, other than Version III. Second, if you’ve ever received a page with an unfamiliar phone number, you’ll appreciate that Synapse works with your contact database stored in the Pilot to match the incoming phone number on the page with the corresponding name in your address book. However, I found that unless the phone number was the first series of digits on a page, the software wouldn’t match it with my contact database. Installation was a snap. You replace cards and reset your Pilot and resynchronize your data from a PC.
There were disadvantages. First, roaming is nationwide but not effortless. You need to make a phone call to PageMart’s service bureau and enter the area code of your new location. Second, this pager had the most trouble with garbled and missed messages. When that happens, you can call PageMart and have the messages read to you.P
Strom is a freelance reviewer in Port Washington, N.Y.
Analysts such as Darryl Sterling at The Yankee Group estimate that, out of more than 45 million pagers in use today, approximately 61,000 are smart pagers. Sterling predicts the number of smart-pager subscribers will jump to about 8.8 million by 2003.
In the meantime, “People buy pagers for a lot of reasons,” says David Weilmuenster, an independent communications consultant. “They want long battery life so you can forget about worrying when to change your battery. They also want something small, to fit in your pocket.”
Smart pagers will see more innovation, including Windows CE and PalmPilot-style devices with wireless peripherals, and smarter phones from Samsung and others that come with built-in World Wide Web browsers and data services.
Why bother with smart pagers when you could use just a cellular phone? There are several reasons:
If you need up-to-the-minute contact with your staff and E-mail is a preferred means of communication, you can use these pagers to compose replies. Pagers can also come in handy when sending out alerts from your information systems staff, for example. And if your corporate E-mail system is Notes, then PageWriter — with its optional Notes client — can provide instant notification of incoming messages.

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