Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Look, Ma! No Wires!

Pager service hooks into the Internet

By James Hanback Jr.

JULY 26, 1999:  Look at any period in history, and you'll see a society attempting to break its boundaries and improve its efficiency. When we wanted to hunt bigger game, we invented weapons of wood and stone. When we wanted to plow a field, we invented tools to do the job. When we wanted to get somewhere faster, we invented first the buggy, then the steam engine, then the internal combustion engine.

That history of ideas in motion applies today more than ever. Nowadays, we've improved our work efficiency and broken distance barriers via the Internet. And on the Internet, we've further broken down the restraints by developing services that allow us to travel and take our work and communications with us: Web-based e-mail, palmtops, and the like. So what's the next step?

Look, ma! No wires!

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about a new digital telephone and Internet service coming to Nashville--a phone that has a built-in Web browser. Only a couple of days later, I received an e-mail from a man who told me he was sending his message through the new BellSouth Interactive Paging service while waiting in line at McDonald's.

What it boils down to is that pagers (which once could do no more than receive and display telephone numbers) have evolved. And with BellSouth's new service and a device by RIM (Research in Motion) Interactive that's about the size of a regular messaging pager, you can now send and receive e-mail, send faxes, send voice telephone messages, and retrieve other limited Internet information from, quite literally, anywhere. No desktop PC required.

Naturally, I had to try one.

The first thing I noticed about it when the pager landed on my desk was its minuscule hardware interface, which consists of a clickable thumbwheel (sort of like a mouse for the pager), three curved rows of keys, and a fourth row with a space bar/symbol key. I generally like large keys, but after a few minutes of typing with one finger while holding the pager in the palm of my other hand, I decided to look at it another way and pretend I was playing a video game.

Cupping the pager with the fingers of both hands, I used my thumbs for typing instead of my index finger, and suddenly I was a pro. The pager's liquid crystal display is easy to read in good light and has an Indiglo-like backlight feature for dark places.

The software interface is menu-driven and easy to figure out without looking at the manual (which, by the way, extensively covers the majority of the service's features). More important, the services work exactly the way the manual and technical sources say they should.

The paging function allows users to receive (and send) traditional telephone number pages as well as message pages. They arrive in an "inbox" format, similar to most e-mail programs. Likewise, users can send and receive voice messages. Type a telephone number into the pager, type what you want to say, and the individual you call, if he or she picks up the telephone, will hear your message repeated in a robotic voice. Want to fax a message to someone? The pager handles that, too.

But by far the most attractive feature of the new paging service is its integration of e-mail and the traditional features that accompany other e-mail programs. The pager allows the storage of addresses in an address book, as well as handling basic features like reading, replying, composing, forwarding, and adding signatures to e-mail.

I was most impressed by it after I gave the Scene's administrative assistant my pager's e-mail address. The next day, while I was working on a column at a workstation without a telephone, my pager suddenly went off with a message from him. "Gracey needs to see you NOW," it read.

Instead of acknowledging the message the way a traditional pager customer would (by finding a telephone to place a call to the person who sent the page), I simply clicked on "Reply" and informed him that I was on my way.

The pager also contains a few features other e-mail programs don't have. For example, if you compose an e-mail to BellSouth's Interactive Pager service and type "David" as your subject, you'll receive the very latest Late Night with David Letterman Top 10 List downloaded directly from the Internet. Other keywords will look up word definitions, download flight schedules, check the weather, and even give you the latest PGA scores.

Other innovative features I discovered by accident. While typing an e-mail to a friend of mine, I signed off with one of her usual closers: "TTYL." Upon hitting the Enter key, the pager automatically translated my abbreviation to "Talk to you later."

A few curious people peered into my office when I shouted "Cool!"

It turns out that the pager has an "Autotext" feature, which allows you to customize spell-checking and abbreviations. For instance, if you constantly type "did'nt" instead of "didn't," you can have the pager automatically correct it for you. "TTYL" was one of the pre-programmed autotexts.

In spite of my fascination with the device, there was one thing that could not compare with communicating via my desktop PC. It was difficult to stay within service areas, even within the Scene's offices. That made sending messages speedily difficult at times while I was waiting for service to return.

According to BellSouth officials, the pager uses a radio frequency and, like any other radio signal, it can be blocked by various obstructions. They also said it was likely that my offices are on the fringe of the current antenna network.

However, I was assured that the pager's network currently covers major metropolitan areas like Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga. It reportedly covers 93 percent of the business population of the United States.

Also, the coverage area is always expanding, according to BellSouth. This year, 365 new antennas are expected to be installed for the Interactive Paging network. Last year, the company installed 1.5 a day.

Overall, the pager could turn into a device of great convenience. (Even if one falls out of the service area, messages are stored until service returns.) In emergencies, especially, one could keep in close contact with others yet in reality be miles away.

BellSouth's Interactive Paging service starts at $24.95 a month. The RIM pager itself is around $359. Rental and leasing options are also available.


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