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Companies tap email, Net pager trend

Pagers and other wireless gadgets with email and Net access are becoming a marketing tool of choice for many companies trying to build customer loyalty.

The world is coming to your hip pocket.

The business world, in particular, is eyeing your pocket, belt, and briefcase as pagers and other wireless gadgets with email and Net access are becoming a marketing tool for many companies trying to build customer loyalty.

Pagers, for instance, are being called on to do more. Skytel and eBay are now offering users of the popular online auction site the ability to stay current on their bids via eBay-branded pagers, including one encased in eBay's trademark red, yellow, and blue colors.

Another company interested in spreading the word, via pagers, to its customers is upstart telecom company RCN. RCN will offer pagers from RIM Limited to some 500,000 customers of its Internet service so they can send and receive email from their usual account when on the road.

And starting next month, a start-up called Neopoint will be making its first generation "smart phone" available through Sprint's PCS wireless phone service, which will go up against offerings with similar functionality from Motorola, Nokia, and Qualcomm. The phone, about the same size as other cell phones, offers email, Net access, and personal information management functions.

The growing array of wireless gadgets that can access email and the Internet serves as evidence of a long talked about and hoped for arrival of the era of the info appliances, some analysts say.

"What it comes down to is that [the industry] has been talking about this coming generation of consumer products and appliances, and we're finally seeing them come to market," said Kevin Hause, analyst with International Data Corporation. "Beyond just WebTV, there's a whole spectrum of devices that are coming to markets in different ways and in different designs and will enable this vision of being connected from multiple devices."

The appearance of more connected devices also points toward a lessening dependence on the PC as a sole point of access to the Internet. Many of these gadgets need to share and synchronize information such as calendars and contact information with a PC, but increasingly these applications are being offered on Web sites such as Yahoo.

The eBay deal suggests many co-branding possibilities. Users of the site's "Auction a-go-go" pay providers of the Skytel service $75 for the pager, which includes six months of activation and service. Additional service, which is prepaid by the number of messages received, is available at extra cost.

Ebay's users can also have the service send notices when they win that vintage G.I. Joe action figure or when an item is sold. Only normal service provider charges apply; eBay's service is free.

"Pagers are so cheap that it's really easy to build relationships to keep people using your service. They become more familiar with the service and are seeing [the] brand more, so its more likely they will come back to the site."

RCN is hoping to keep people interested in its communications services. The company is offering, in limited geographic areas, integrated phone, cable, and Internet service. Pagers are yet another item they can offer to keep customers from having to shop elsewhere for a service.

RCN recently signed a contract with RIM valued at $10 million to provide its customers a pager that comes with a processor that used to be in desktop computers not so long ago: an Intel 386, along with 2 megabytes of memory for message and data storage.

Is there a doctor on the road?
Wireless gadgets are hitting "vertical markets" such as medicine, too. WirelessMD said it is working with Skytel to provide nationwide interactive medical-data retrieval from any location to doctors, nurses, and administrators.

The service uses Wireless MD's proprietary software in conjunction with SkyTel's service to allow customers to manage email, voicemail, and faxes from a Motorola Pagewriter 2000X two-way pager.

Wireless MD said it is currently hoping to provide the service to 30,000 physicians by the second quarter of next year.