Alphanumeric pagers can do everything from receiving E-mail to downloading information from your office and the Web

A new, smart type of pager that can interact with computers is becoming indispensable--on the farm and on the road.

Beepers, pocket-size devices that show you a caller's phone number, have a new name and expanded capabilities. Now called alphanumeric pagers (because they display both letters and numbers), the devices can come equipped with E-mail addresses. They interact with PCs and Macs in a variety of ways: They can receive short E-mail messages that you read on a four-line display panel. They can relay stock prices, weather reports, and sports scores (from service providers that supply the information). And they can download text or financial data from the World Wide Web or from E-mail, sales-management programs, or spreadsheets running in your office.

As a result, alphas, as they are sometimes called, are becoming essential equipment for all types of executives on the go, not just doctors and delivery people. Alphas offer a low-cost unobtrusive way to stay in touch with colleagues and customers and a simple way to keep abreast of news that may affect your business.

"My pager keeps me in touch with the world," says George Silva Jr., who runs a dairy farm in rural Turlock, Calif. With 2,200 milking cows in a herd 6,000 strong and a 30-employee business to run, the owner of the $1-million G. J. Silva and Son Dairy can't be tied to his office.

Silva, his two managers, and six other employees carry Motorola's Advisor Gold FLX pagers; he leases all nine for $117 a month from a local office of PageNet, the nation's largest paging provider. The paging service allows the secretaries who monitor the office PCs and phones to send E-mail messages to Silva and his managers when important calls come in--from a major customer like Safeway, for example, which runs a chain of supermarkets.

The messages are relayed via PageMaster, a shareware wireless-messaging program from Omnitrend Software ($49.95) that runs on all three office PCs. PageMaster lets the staff create a message like "Safeway order up 10%" and then E-mail it to each manager. Silva prefers PageMaster to the free messaging software PageNet gave him because it has scheduling features. For instance, every Monday at 11:30 a.m. the program sends the barn managers this message: "Start generators before lunch. Shut them down after lunch." That assures Silva that the farm's backup power supply, crucial to the 24-hour milking operation, is ready for any emergency.

Pagers make sense on a farm. But why do you need one if you're already lugging around a cell phone and a laptop? For one thing, when you're on the road it isn't always possible to plug in your computer to download E-mail. For another, there are times when answering your cell phone is downright rude. "You never know just what you'll be doing when your phone rings," says Tim Scott, president and founder of Mortgage Link, in Oklahoma City. "You might be on the golf course, admiring your client's swing. And interrupting that swing could cost you the deal." Pagers vibrate quietly and then store messages. You don't have to read or act on those messages until you're ready.

What's more, compared with cellular-phone service, paging is cheap. Leasing an alpha with one-way local paging service costs about $20 a month. For that $20 you can receive about 200 text messages, each running, on the average, about 200 characters. Compare that with the cost of 200 cell-phone calls. Even if those calls were brief--and local--they would run well over $80, estimates Jerry Houston, a consultant and former vice-president of marketing for Socket Communications, a pager and software manufacturer in Newark, Calif. Nationwide paging coverage, by the way, costs about $50 a month.

Scott, who carries a pager in his pocket when he's away from the office, founded Mortgage Link in September 1995. The tiny, six-employee operation originates mortgage loans for home buyers. With its minimal overhead, Mortgage Link can offer lower interest rates and fewer points than the big banks and financial institutions that are its competition. But to succeed, Scott and his colleagues must follow up every lead. Incoming calls have to be returned promptly. To make sure they are, the five loan officers, who spend much of their time in the field, depend on pagers. When home buyers call Mortgage Link for a loan or when real estate brokers contact the company to pass on referrals, office manager Shelly Garrison pages Scott or one of the loan officers from her PC, relaying a message like "New client. Call Sam Parker at 555-1212."

Mortgage Link uses Notify! Classic, wireless messaging software from Ex Machina ($119.95), which transmits the message via modem to the loan officer. In addition to paying the one-time software cost, Mortgage Link spends $80 a month to lease the six pagers for local coverage from American Paging, a local outfit.

The paging industry is dominated by a handful of national players, including PageNet, PageMart, SkyTel, and AT&T Wireless Services (formerly McCaw Cellular Communications); they all offer local, regional, and national coverage. But a large number of paging companies are small outfits furnishing local, and occasionally regional, coverage. Signing on with a local company made sense for Mortgage Link not only because Scott and his loan officers conduct virtually all their business in and around Oklahoma City, but also because local paging companies, which serve narrow territories, provide their areas with more transmitters than national companies can. The result is better service--a near guarantee that your page will go through. The best way to find a paging company in your area is to check the Yellow Pages under "Paging & Signaling Equipment & Systems."

Prices don't vary much between national and local players. When you lease an alpha and sign up for a service plan, you usually get an E-mail address for the pager ( Most companies offer wireless messaging software, similar to Notify! and PageMaster, that lets you create messages on a PC and dispatch them to one or more pagers. All the nationwide paging companies also can provide software that can forward mail from your office PC's mail programs or from your company's local area network. The software lets you arrange to have certain E-mail messages or parts of them (the first three lines of those from your boss, for example) transmitted to your pager when they come in. Some companies also provide information services--sports scores, weather reports, stock prices, for instance--sometimes for an additional cost.

National paging companies sell through company-owned stores, resellers, and retail chains like Office Depot and Best Buy. You can call the 800 number (see below) or check the Yellow Pages for the company paging store nearest you.

Some smaller paging companies supply you with an E-mail address, but don't assume yours will. If your provider doesn't, you can enlist the services of Interpage Network Services, in West Hartford, Conn. For $10 a month or less, the company assigns an E-mail address to any pager.

Silva signed on with Interpage not only because it gave him an E-mail address when his local PageNet provider couldn't, but also because it offers news and weather services. "Weather is critical in my business," he says. "I don't have time to sit and watch it on TV." Throughout the day, weather reports, along with national-news updates, flash across Silva's pager's liquid-crystal-display (LCD) panel. Interpage also provides stock prices, sports scores, and even horoscopes.

Despite the array of PC-related services, alphanumeric paging has some limitations. Many pagers--or paging services--limit the length of a message to 240 characters. You can receive longer messages, but it can be expensive and cumbersome to do so. The text has to be broken into a series of separate message packets, each within the character limit. You may be billed for each packet separately, and the packets are likely to arrive out of order. So for practical purposes, paging is ill suited to anything but the briefest of messages.

More significant is that paging is primarily a one-way means of communication. To date, only SkyTel offers two-way, send-and-receive service that allows pagers to respond to PCs or Macs. (The other national services are expected to follow suit in 1997.) SkyTel's two-way paging devices have 16 predefined responses, like "On my way," "Thank you," "Will call later," "Yes," "No," and "Where are you?" You can also preset responses into the text of your message. The recipient chooses among the responses by aligning a small arrow on the display panel with the selected response and hitting the "send" button.

The need to respond on the fly got Serdar Yurdakul to trade in his one-way pager for a two-way Motorola alpha with a SkyTel 2-Way system. As vice-president of computer-telephony products for DSP Group, in Santa Clara, Calif., he spends nearly two weeks of every month on the road, selling the company's speech-compression chips to customers planning to embed the technology in their video phones.

"Sometimes you need an on-the-spot answer for an out-of-the-ordinary situation," Yurdakul says. When a customer's order calls for unusual pricing, he zaps an E-mail from his Hewlett-Packard palmtop computer to his boss's two-way pager: "Let me know if the below pricing is acceptable." His boss can shoot back a reply by aligning the arrow on his pager with the response he wants to make. The national two-way service costs the company $74.95 a month. (Local two-way coverage would cost $24.95.)

Though the advantage of two-way paging is clear, you usually can't create messages on a pager. However, that situation is changing. SkyTel is currently testing the SkyWriter, a two-way device that lets users write messages. The device is too small to house a keyboard, however. Instead, you "type" by moving a cursor over the letters of the alphabet, choosing the ones you want and entering them into the message text by pressing a "select" button--a method so cumbersome that most users aren't likely to find it worth the effort.

Then again, most people don't expect technology to have an answer for everything. As Mortgage Link's Scott puts it, "The pager sure helps, but it's no substitute for working 12 hours a day."


National Paging Companies

AT&T Wireless Services, Kirkland, WA; 800-354-PAGE;

PageMart, Dallas; 800-324-PAGE;; E-mail:

PageNet (Paging Network), Plano, TX; 800-PAGENET;

SkyTel, Washington, D.C.; 800-456-3333;


Notify!, a line of wireless messaging software; Ex Machina, New York City; 212-843-0000;

PageCard, a combined PCMCIA card and pager that works with PageNet service; Socket Communications, Newark, CA; 800-552-3300;; E-mail:

PageMaster, wireless messaging software; Omnitrend Software, Farmington, CT; 860-678-7679;

PageSoft for Act!, adds paging capability to ACT for Windows (Symantec's sales-and-contact-management software); Socket Communications, Newark, CA; 800-552-3300;; E-mail:

E-mail Addresses

Interpage Network Services, West Hartford, CT; 800-624-6964; E-mail:

Jennifer deJong writes frequently about business and technology.