By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
ReFLEX-network messaging carriers are emerging from years of financial turmoil and limited device selections with an expanded selection of lower cost two-way messaging devices that they intend to market more aggressively.
The carriers — SkyTel, Metrocall and WebLink Wireless — will focus their reenergized efforts on the enterprise market with at least five keyboard-equipped devices. The devices are the first ReFLEX models manufactured by companies other than Motorola, which shipped its last pagers in late 2002.
WebLink Wireless, however, also plans to step up marketing through online and brick-and-mortar electronics retailers, said marketing VP Noel Gouldin.
"ReFLEX is going through a rebirth," he said. ReFLEX carriers, Gouldin said, have "clean balance sheets," are cash-flow-positive, and will be able to offer a greater selection of devices that are more enterprise-friendly than before.
The selection will include three ReFLEX-equipped PDAs. One, HuneTec's H500, will be based on the latest Palm 5.0 operating system, and another, the S-935 clamshell model from Sun Telecom, will be Linux-based. Both will leverage existing applications/development communities adept at creating enterprise-oriented applications, the carriers said. A third PDA, HuneTec's H200, will use a proprietary operating system.
For enterprises, WebLink will price the Palm and Linux models in the mid-$200s, and the other models will be available in the low- to mid-$100s. Prices to online and brick-and-mortar purchasers will be slightly higher: about $300 for the Palm and Linux PDAs and from $149-$199 for the others, with the HuneTec H200 PDA at around $169 if made available to dealers, Gouldin said. The products will have a staggered rollout starting in the early third quarter through the fourth quarter.
Carriers often sell two current Motorola-made ReFLEX devices to enterprises for around $150, for a model without PDA functions, to $330 for a clamshell model with proprietary PDA OS. These prices, however, include carrier subsidies. The new models can be sold to enterprises for less without carrier subsidies, carriers said, pointing in part to the new suppliers' lower overhead compared to Motorola's.
Although the three carriers will focus on selling the devices to enterprises, WebLink sees some additional opportunity in brick-and-mortar retailers. WebLink has continued to sell its services through Fry's and select e-tail sites, but now, WebLink plans "to do more e-tail and select more brick-and-mortar retail," said WebLink's Gouldin. The carrier will target SO/HO-oriented consumers, or "pro-sumers," rather than teenagers and soccer moms, he emphasized.
These consumers will be able to take advantage of a suite of e-mail redirection solutions: server-based redirection software for Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Novell servers; desktop-based redirection software for home and office PCs with always-on broadband connections; and a WebLink-hosted service that redirects POP3 and IMAP4 e-mail from ISPs.
Although SkyTel and MetroCall have largely abandoned CE channels, both continue to sell through resellers, wireless-specialty stores and select online retailers. Like WebLink, both also offer their products on their Web sites. MetroCall's sole CE account is Ritz Camera, according to MetroCall's Web site. Last year, MetroCall closed the chain of strip-mall stores that it operated, although it accepts walk-in traffic at its local sales offices. MetroCalls' reseller accounts include select AT&T Wireless stores.
In launching the new devices, the three carriers will promote what they see as ReFLEX's advantages over cellular-based messaging. A key advantage is reliability, said SkyTel president Kerry McKelvey. "IT [departments] can't rely on [cellular] SMS for mission-critical messaging," he claimed.
WebLink's Gouldin called ReFLEX networks "mature" because they're fully built-out and "proven." The networks also feature "store-and-forward" technology, which stores messages in the network and resends them until they're received. The networks also simulcast a message simultaneously from multiple transmitters in a market to improve in-building penetration compared to cellular networks, he said.
Because ReFLEX devices use QWERTY keyboards, they're easier to use to compose messages than standard cellphones, he noted. Message-centric cellphones also feature QWERTY keyboards, but their prices are mostly in the $400s, he said.
The ReFLEX battery life of three to four weeks on a single AA exceeds that of cellphone-based messaging devices, he added.
The new ReFLEX devices, carriers added, offer many advantages over existing Motorola models, including pricing. "It's possible to get some of them soon under $100 without carrier or manufacturer rebates of one-third the price," said SkyTel's McKelvey.
Another advantage is the use of open PDA operating systems rather than closed proprietary ones. For the Palm 5.0 device, about 16,000 horizontal and vertical applications are available, said Albert Chu, PalmSource's business development VP.
The existing Motorola T900, carriers added, couldn't send a message simultaneously to multiple recipients.
Almost 1.5 million people subscribe to ReFLEX service, the carriers said.
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