PAGERS AREN'T JUST FOR PAGING ANYMORE

Messages, faxes, two-way service--all in all, an electronic Swiss Army knife

Dave Farber was in a jam. His plane had just pulled away from its gate in Denver when a mechanical problem caused a delay. In the meantime, a friend was getting ready to leave his office to pick Farber up in San Jose, Calif. How could Farber, a telecommunications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, keep his pal from showing up early? From the tarmac, Farber simply sent a message from his pager to his friend's E-mail address and got a reply back that his buddy would wait before heading out. Twenty minutes later, Farber sent another note that the plane was taking off. ''It allowed me to interact even from the plane,'' Farber said.

Pagers are becoming the must-have communications tool for executives on the go. Instead of only receiving messages, a new breed of ''interactive'' pagers can also transmit short text messages to other pagers, E-mail addresses, faxes, and even, via computerized voices, to telephones. The two-way devices let you know whether a message you sent was received. And these days, they also double as Internet devices, scooping up stock quotes and other data off the World Wide Web.

NEWS SCOOPS. Those features, however, don't come cheap. Two-way pagers cost $322 to $700, which makes them as expensive as most mobile telephones--they run $300 to $600 if you don't sign up for an extended service contract. But monthly paging fees are not so bad--as low as $24.95--and the up-front cost can be broken up into monthly payments. That makes interactive pagers an economical alternative to new digital phones that also have paging and short messaging capabilities. A New York City food bank called Food for Survival uses two-way pagers to coordinate deliveries.

Wireless Access' AccessLink pager, offered by SkyTel and other carriers, is the simplest and cheapest option. It's as small and light as a one-way pager and can receive short text messages and news updates. But while its tiny on-screen keyboard saves space, it's a hassle to key in messages longer than a few words. You can, however, select various canned messages, such as ''traffic delay,'' ''yes,'' and ''on my way.''

A more satisfying solution is the Inter@ctive pager, which Farber used on the Denver tarmac. From Research In Motion, the product has a small QWERTY keyboard and a flip-top liquid-crystal display. The keyboard works best with two thumbs, and it's surprisingly easy for short messages. Battery life can be a problem, though, since two AA batteries last less than a week if the pager is kept on. And at eight ounces, it's bulky enough that only true nerds would strap one onto their belts.

PRECISE BEAMING. Motorola Inc.'s PageWriter 2000 offers similar functions in a machine that's both smaller and lighter. However, its QWERTY keyboard and operating system are a bit harder to use. Motorola, which promised the device last summer, now says it will be marketed before the end of the year. But news, information, and other services won't be available until 1998.

Two-way devices look like they will become the pager of choice over the next few years. Not only do they offer a quantum leap in functionality but carriers benefit since the devices periodically advise networks of their location. That saves valuable bandwidth because messages can be broadcast to a narrow region rather than sent nationwide. Yankee Group Research Inc. estimates that two-way wireless messaging, now used by fewer than 400,000 people, will explode to 50.9 million by 2002. If so, there will be little excuse for missing E-mail messages, no matter where you are.

By Steven V. Brull in Los Angeles



RELATED ITEMS

TABLE: Pagers Go Interactive

PHOTO: Inter@ctive Pager from Research in Motion

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