A group of smaller, paging manufacturers impudently are challenging the pager dominance of the 800-pound gorilla that is Motorola Inc. by creating products with unique features designed to set themselves apart.
“Paging is a commodity,” said Tim Kataras, president of Global Access Inc., a smaller paging manufacturer based in Escondido, Calif. “Carriers can make all the ad claims they want, but basically, you walk into any store in America and you’re going to see the same five Motorola pagers with about the same functionality.”
To compete, a smaller paging manufacturer must come up with something different. Some insiders say such competition is impossible; that Motorola and Glenayre Technologies Inc.’s Wireless Access Group have too tight a choke hold on the market to allow a start-up any air.
But Kataras has a different story. He said the shortage of large paging manufacturers in the United States creates an opening for smaller manufacturers that can offer something unique, now that the paging user mix is becoming more consumer-oriented. Paging carriers themselves have long looked to consumer electronic firms to come out with a new line of devices to spark competition and lower prices.
“Pagers have become a consumer product and consumers demand variety,” Kataras said. “As paging increases its penetration into the consumer market, there’s going to be tremendous opportunity.”
This can be accomplished several ways: dream up new features aimed at consumers, dream up new features aimed at carriers and dealers, or align with a new paging technology.
Kataras’ Global Access-which was formed in 1996 by former Intek Corp. employees and in April went public-has taken the middle route with devices that add value to the paging provider as a means of differentiation. Global Access touts its devices as having unique features that help reduce churn via over-the-air programming capabilities.
“The tack we took was, instead of turning another bell or whistle for the consumer, let’s focus on the businesses,” Kataras said. “There has been no consideration to the businesses we sell to. What makes this a better product for the dealer is that we understand the problem businesses have with churn and designed a product to deal with that.”
The company’s POCSAG-based Elite Keychain pager features OTA control that allows paging providers to send a numeric code to have the pager screen read “account due” in place of the time and date display. The customer cannot erase this message, which goes away only when the provider numerically sends the proper reset code.
More than just a way to deal with delinquent accounts, Kataras said this system reduces invoicing costs through electronic billing, as opposed to mailing invoices.
If the bill is never paid, the provider can “kill” the pager via OTA control by sending a different numeric code that disables the pager’s CPU and permanently deactivates the device. With the CPU locked up, the user cannot get recrystallized by another carrier, as often happens when disconnection is done via the paging switch.
“We know the dealers tend to look at things strictly in a dollar-and-cents position,” Kataras said. “That’s whey we added the OTA features.”
The company intends to announce FLEX-based numeric and alphanumeric OTA pagers later this year.
Another manufacturer targeting paging industry concerns is WireLink Communications Inc., which offers pagers with extension capabilities. The company makes pagers that can be programmed to share a common cap code and phone number. According to David Okomoto, WireLink sales manager, the 900 MHz pagers have a special RF board that assigns each pager a 4-digit extension.
All pagers sharing the cap code “receive” the message sent to that phone number, but the RF board does not display the message on the screen unless the page was sent with that particular pager’s extension number. The pagers also provide group paging, so five of 10 pagers sharing a cap code can get one message via a group paging code and the other five don’t.
Okomoto said this extension system is good for both provider and customer. Resellers in particular benefit, because they can provide paging services to and receive service revenue from several customers while only paying the carrier for one cap code and need purchase fewer phone numbers.
Certain models also have limited OTA capabilities. The recently introduced Intruder allows providers to program the pager’s cap code, extension number and baud rate by telephone, as well as disconnect service. Although a numeric pager, it also has 14 canned text messages that can be prompted numerically. The Echo I model can “speak” the numeric message to the user, who then needs not view the display, and can also redial the caller’s number acoustically by holding the device to a DTMF-compatible phone.
Another tactic is to target consumers with such novelties as combination pagers/FM radio headphones (Standard Telecom Inc., GoComm Wireless Corp.) or pagers the size and shape of a credit card (Percomm Pagers Inc.) or pre-programmed alpha messages over numeric pagers (Intek Corp., NEC America Inc., WireLink). But analysts have long said that paging devices, like services, must provide consumers with real value to make any kind of impact.
The NPCS market
For instance, while NEC gained some attention with its marginally successful Message Maker pager series, the company made a big splash of late introducing the Beacon Data Pager. NEC’s Envisage Enhanced Wireless Products division was created to address the future need for advanced NPCS products. The Beacon Data Pager is its first offering.
It contains operating system software provided by Microsoft Corp., which allows for various setting options, data interchange with other pagers and PCs and information management. It features an infrared port to transfer data such as phone books or databases either pager-to-pager or pager-to-PC wirelessly. The pager also can archive messages, manage contact lists and provide appointment notification.
Many paging providers want to make the pager an extension of the workstation, allowing it access to the information stored on the office computer. The Beacon Data Pager allows users to store some of that information directly on the pager.
Finally, a company can align itself with a totally new technology, banking upon said technology becoming successful and claiming an early lead in device sales.
Oi Electric, an affiliate of Mitsubishi Electronics Corp., has been working in conjunction with OmniVoice Communications Inc. to create the 3N1 pager. Based on technology provided by OmniVoice’s parent companies-Belgium-based speech compression experts Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V. and San Diego-based paging dispatch house National Dispatch Center Inc.-the 3N1 is the only pager to address OmniVoice’s experimental combined voice and data paging system, called VoiceOver, currently tested by Arch Communications Group Inc. and TSR Wireless L.L.C.
VoiceOver is a voice paging solution which compresses voice messages into packets readable by FLEX and, soon, ReFLEX data networks-allowing one pager and network to provide numeric, alphanumeric and voice paging services.
The 3N1 decompresses and plays voice messages. It can store and play up to 99 20-second voice messages and features a display screen with four lines of 20 characters each.
Oi Electric designed and built its first pager in 1963 and claims a quarter of Japan’s pager market, but has been essentially unknown in the United States. However, analysts have strongly backed the VoiceOver solution. Should it take off, Oi could find itself a household name.
Lack of attention
Even if their differentiation strategies work, smaller manufacturers can face a lack of attention from larger paging carriers. Most sel
l their wares to smaller providers or through direct retail outlets because they haven’t the capital reserves necessary to
sell in bulk to the large carriers, which prefer paying for pagers on a leveraged accounts payable manner rather than up front.
“We are too small a company to loan money to multimillion-dollar paging carriers,” Kataras said. Instead, Global Access targets its database of 25,000 paging retailers.
But dedicating oneself to a particular tactic can pay off. Wireless Access made impressive inroads into the market by pushing the narrowband personal communications services envelope, which led to its acquisition by Glenayre Technologies Inc. Now, Wireless Access is the one company posing any significant challenge to Motorola.
Motorola said it will announce new paging products this week in New York. No further details were available at press time.