The beeper boom: ways to keep in touch, and on top

Sherwood Gaylord, a retired General Electric employee, likes to dabble in the stock market. Only trouble is, it requires a long-distance call to his broker. To get around that, the Stamford, Conn., resident keeps two radio pagers at his elbow. They beep every time something happens to a stock he's following. ''For anyone managing a small portfolio,'' he says of the calculator-size devices, ''I don't know how they could get along without it.''

Apparently more and more people can't - or at least something similar. Americans, by the tens of thousands, are keeping in touch with radio pagers in what may turn out to be one of the biggest - if noisiest - booms in personal electronic devices in years.

The penchant for pagers is just one part of what is expected to be an explosion in personal communications gear over the next decade - with important implications for a society increasingly preoccupied with keeping ''in touch.''

This year alone, more than 3 million people are expected to buy walkie-talkie-looking cordless telephones. Another 3 million are projected to outfit their cars with mobile phones by 1990.

But the most omnipresent portable communications device will probably be the beeper. Once confined to engineers and hospital orderlies, pagers are now being used by parents to summon home children at night, the elderly to keep tabs on one another, and a host of professional people to take calls from the office.

An estimated 2.3 million people use radio pagers. By 1990, estimates the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market research firm, that could hit 11 million. Paging equipment and services are projected to be a $3.8 billion industry by then - up from $975 million last year.

''Pagers could conceivably be the next calculator in the consumer market,'' says Yankee Group analyst Chris Christiansen.

Behind the beeper boom is a new generation of lower-cost, more flexible equipment. The pagers of five years ago were bulky, $300-to-$400 devices. Models can now be bought for half that. Radio Shack is pitching one for under $100 (plus a monthly rental fee for sending messages over the radio waves).

More alluring to some is what today's devices do. No longer do they just beep to tell of a phone call. New units blink out short messages (''your boss called'') on tiny window displays. And some of these ''electronic secretaries'' can store several notes at a time.

In other words, the simple beeper is slowly being transformed into a pocket data terminal - the stock-spewing ''Pocket Quote'' ($350) is but one step in that direction (so far limited to the New York and Washington areas). Before long, models are expected that will print out notes on paper.

More sophisticated devices are being developed that will allow two-way communication over radio waves. After receiving a signal bounced off a satellite , a person will tap out a reply on a tiny keypad, plug the device into a phone jack, and have it sent to someone automatically. Nationwide paging networks are being explored, too.

What all this reflects is more than just a yearning for new gimmicks. Dr. Gerda McCahan, a psychology professor at Furman University in South Carolina, contends that many people see the beeper and other personal communications gear as status symbols: They convey the lofty impression that a person is ''indispensable.''

The devices, too, are a way to exert authority. ''When people have a beeper, '' Dr. McCahan adds, ''they are accessible and in control. If anything comes up at the office, they can handle it.''

Such round-the-clock control, though, has its costs. News of the office, sociologists are increasingly cautioning, shouldn't always intrude on time at the lake. While the academics spar over the relative merits or demerits of beepers, there is one group that knows where it stands. It is those silence-seekers who have been jolted one too many times by an irksome beep at a movie.

Just how pervasive - or perturbing - pagers have become is symbolized by a footnote in a Boston Symphony Orchestra brochure on its summer concerts at Tanglewood: ''Please be sure the electronic signal on your . . . pager is switched off during the concert.''

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