Smart, Useful And They Won't Put A Sag In Your Suit

No one is scheduled to pick up the baby from day care, you suddenly remember shortly before you dash off to a critical marketing meeting. So you pull out your pocket phone, call your spouse's pager, and zap off an urgent electronic message. Moments later, a news flash arrives on the personal digital assistant (PDA) inside your briefcase. The sales figures you're taking to the meeting have beenrevised.

The latest wireless wonders are helping busy people keep in touch with both home and office. No longer essential tools just for executives, these gadgets are reinventing routine communications in ways that no one could have foreseen just a decade ago.

BABY DAYS. When the first cellular communication system was activated in Chicago on Oct. 13, 1983, AT&T predicted that fewer than 1 million people would use such services by the year 2000. The reality: By the end of 1993, there were more than 16 million cellular phone subscribers, with 14,000 new users joining in every day, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn.

What's more, nearly 19 million Americans of all stripes are carrying pagers--devices once associated primarily with doctors, sales reps, and certain criminal elements. PDAs are still in their infancy, so they're not that widespread yet. But as the makers perfect these brainy communications devices, they may become indispensable tools as well. As Herschel Shosteck, a Silver Spring (Md.) wireless communications market researcher, puts it: "Everything in wireless is growing by leaps and bounds."

As usage proliferates, the hardware is getting cheaper, smaller, and more sophisticated. Ten years ago, for example, most cellular phones were "luggable" 8-to-11-pound models that required their own shoulder bag. But today, the most popular style, the handset phone, weighs in at a mere 4 to 6 ounces and fits in a jacket pocket or purse without telltale bulges. Take Motorola's sleek Microtac flip phones, which range in price from $200 to $720. The mouthpiece folds over the keypad to make the unit compact and to protect the delicate push buttons when the phone is not being used.

A small size doesn't mean the buyer has to skimp on features. At a suggested retail price of $799, Nokia Mobile Phones' Nokia 232 measures less than six inches in length but incorporates a three-line liquid crystal display screen that keeps users informed of signal strength and battery life. The easy-to-read display also helps owners program often-called numbers and lock up codes to prevent unauthorized use. The phone has a built-in jack that connects to specially designed computer modems so laptop users can send and receive e-mail and faxes wirelessly.

NEARLY FREE. It's hard to consider the cost of a cellular phone without factoring in the monthly service charges. Often, service providers pay commissions to retailers to get them to sign up new customers. This allows retailers to practically give away the phones as a sales incentive. It helps to offer phones that have a lot of built-in features. The Audiovox MVX-750 is used by many cellular service providers for its array of options, including a silent ring that causes the device to flash on incoming calls. The phone is also geared to take advantage of extra services that a provider may offer a new subscriber. One of the most useful directs incoming calls to a voice-mail system whenever the phone wanders out of range of the cellular network. The subscriber can get voice-mail access at the touch of a button. Retailing for $499, the MVX-750 can be had for almost nothing when offered as part of a service package.

TAILORED PLANS. Cellular rates vary according to where you live and at what time you tend to make and receive calls. In the metropolitan New York area, for example, consumers have a choice between Nynex--the local Baby Bell--and Cellular One, a unit of McCaw Cellular Communications.

Each company offers several service plans. Generally, frequent users pay higher monthly charges and lower per-call rates, while people who have cellular phones for the occasional emergency--say, when their car breaks down on the road--pay less per month but more per call. Under Nynex's Leisure plan, for example, subscribers pay 90 cents per minute of talk time during business hours on top of a $30 monthly access fee. Under Nynex's Simplicity plan, peak rates range from 41 to 60 per minute and $26 to $40 per month, depending on the amount of time one spends on the telephone.

COLORFUL BUNCH. If you need to be in touch but don't require two-way voice communication, pagers are much more economical. Monthly service fees run $8 to $15 on average, a fraction of the cost of cellular. The pagers themselves are also much cheaper. A simple beeper that alerts you to a message received at an answering service can be bought for as little as $4; more typical models cost around $50.

With a push to the mass market, Motorola's $119 Bravo pager comes in vibra pink, bimini blue, totally teal, and other designer colors. Bravos also play music or vibrate to signal a message. But even as pagers make a fashion statement, they are also becoming a lot more functional.

The hottest selling beepers are "alphanumerics" such as Motorola's $349 Advisor with four-line liquid crystal display screens that can communicate detailed text messages--"3:00 with Bob Smith changed to 4:00"--when connected to paging services such as SkyTel. Other nationwide paging companies, such as MobileComm, offer news bulletins and stock quotes.

Such capabilities in the wireless world are only the beginning of a communications revolution. With the convergence of the personal computer, telecommunications, and consumer electronics, expect an array of "intelligent" electronic devices that can handle your appointments, translate your written commands to type, send out your e-mail and faxes, and retrieve news and other information.

While Apple Computer's original Newton Message Pad was a dud, the company recently introduced a version that does a better job recognizing an individual's handwriting and boasts a sleeker design.

More important, to address the issue of wireless communication, owners can get an optional $200 Motorola pager card that receives alphanumeric messages from MobileComm. The specially designed card can transport the message into the Newton, making it easier for busy mobile workers to organize their contacts. If the message tells you, for example, to call a customer at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the user transfers the message to the electronic datebook, and the Newton's intelligence will block out the time to make the call.

And by storing all the pages from a particular client under the name, as well as with notes of conversations and dates and times called, users have a handy record of how much time they spent with the particular person.

Although that makes the Newton a beefed-up one-way pager, other manufacturers are working hard on giving PDAs true two-way wireless communications ability. Motorola, for instance, is expected to begin selling its Envoy PDA by the end of this summer for an estimated $1,500. The device will feature a special wireless modem, which allows personal computers to share files and data via telephone.

In fact, when released, the Envoy will come bundled with software that will allow owners to tap into on-line services such as America Online and AT&t's PersonaLink Services--information bases that traditionally had served only PCs.

BLURRED LINE. Other devices, such as BellSouth's Simon, will blur the line between cellular telephone, pager, and PDA. The $900 unit, which is also expected to hit the market by the end of this summer, looks more like a traditional cellular phone. Instead of a keypad, however, owners would dial phone numbers using a touch-sensitive screen that can also display faxes, e-mail, and alphanumeric pages.

Simon, designed by IBM, has built-in software that will keep track of your appointments and contact lists. It's one step closer to a device that does it all.

      Make-model/Price* Features
      NOKIA 232  
                 The 6.5-oz. unit connects to a laptop com-
       $799      puter to send data. Can program four num-
                 bers for one-touch speed dialing.
      AUDIOVOX MVX-750
                 Has "silent ring" option that alerts owners to
       $499      incoming calls with lights.
                 By far the most popular model offered. A
       $349      four-line LCD screen displays messages and
                 e-mail as well as phone numbers.
                 A two-line LCD screen scrolls to 
       $250      reveal text messages. Can store more than 15
                 messages; comes in variety of colors.
                 Equipped with a "paging card," the New-
                 ton can receive stock quotes, news flashes,
       $800      and e-mail. To send messages still requires
                 an optional modem card.
                 A phone that can act as pager, e-mail ter-
       $900**    minal, and fax machine. Touch-sensitive
                 and built-in software helps owners keep
                 track of phone numbers and appointments.
                 A "next-generation" PDA due out soon, its
       $1,500**  focus is wireless data communications. 
                 Special software will allow for connection 
                 to on-line services such as America Online
                 and AT&T's PersonaLink.
      *Suggested retail. Actual prices vary
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