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Friday, 26 January, 2001, 13:24 GMT
The pager rings off

The pager is set to join the eight-track stereo and Betamax video in the bin of obsolete gadgetry. Ryan Dilley bids the "bleeper" a fond farewell.

No sooner has Peter Mandelson been booted on to the backbenches, than the bell also tolls for his favourite political tool - the pager.

Peter Mandelson
"Call me 911, TB"
Telecom company Orange is winding up its paging service - offering some of its 30,000 customers 50 of executive toys or golfing gifts, or a mobile phone as a replacement.

With 40 million cell phones in the UK and text messaging taking off like a rocket, how long before the remaining two million pager owners bow to the inevitable?

Every improvement in mobile phone technology is a nail in the pager's coffin, says Perdita Peterson, editor of What Mobile.

Pager-speak
911: Call urgently
811: It's not so urgent
143: I love you
121: I need a personal chat
007: I have a secret
411: What's going on?
45 56: Good night, sweet dreams
"A pager does absolutely nothing compared to a mobile. Mobiles are getting smaller. You can send text messages. Pagers are just not desirable."

Many in the House of Commons might agree. While the rest of the UK was going mobile, the pager - an idea decades old - enjoyed a renaissance in at Westminster, thanks to Mr Mandelson.

Pagers were issued to Labour MPs in the mid-1990s to help keep them "on-message" and prompt them when a chance arose to bash the Conservative government.

Researchers at Labour HQ famously alerted MP Brian Wilson to a golden opportunity in March 1997.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
MPs, set your pagers to vibrate
John Greenway, Tory MP for Ryedale, had asked a question about insurance without mentioning a paid consultancy he had from an industry body.

Mr Wilson's triumph was short-lived. The then-speaker Betty Boothroyd decreed that any member reading from a pager would be asked to sit down and ring tones were to be turned off in the chamber.

However, Mrs Boothroyd decided not to take issue with "an instrument that vibrates".

This dressing down amused the Tories, but did not stop them investing in pagers of their own. The investment paid off handsomely last year.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was left looking distinctly "off-message" when news of Alun Michael's departure reached Tory pagers just as the PM was praising the Welsh first secretary.

"He's resigned!" the Opposition shouted across the despatch box.

Ursula Andress in Dr No
"Hello, James, you paged me"
This setback might have prompted the governing party to upgrade their pager system - much to the disgust of MP Austin Mitchell, a critic of the what he called the "party puppet strings".

"I hope they've got spell-check. The old ones used to talk about 'whipps' and 'division immient'."

Mr Mitchell should count himself lucky not to be greeted with an incomprehensible string of numbers - the pager-speak of American teenagers.

The US boasts 40 million pager users - partly thanks to its under-developed mobile network. And the gadget is a must-have for the young.

Given the pager's limited message space, American teens have devised a special numerical code. "911", the telephone number for US emergency services, demands an urgent reply. "007", moniker of James Bond, promises the disclosure of a secret.

It is impossible to underestimate the penetration of the gadget into the teen psyche. There are even pagers which alert their owners by flashing - perfect for a noisy concert, club or bedroom.

Britney Spears
"Wills, 007, 143. Britney"
Some adults may be surprised to find Britney Spears' song Hit Me Baby One More Time was an ode, not to "slap and tickle", but to the pager.

The roots of the pager fashion are not all as wholesome as Miss Spears, though. It is an infamous accessory of drug-dealing "gangstas".

So strong is the association that when a phone code shake-up left a New York dot.com with the pager's old 917 prefix, the management was furious.

"The indignity! We look like a bunch of drug dealers," said boss Dan Levy.

Of course, the pager was first dreamed up for the convenience, not of drug dealers or call girls, but of doctors.

Al Gross, the inventor of the walkie-talkie, thought a paging device would be the perfect thing to alert medics to an emergency.

Bill Clinton on the golf course
"I'll take the golf gift, thanks"
Although the idea failed to catch on immediately - doctors complained that a bleeper might spoil their golf stroke - pagers are now as common as stethoscopes in hospitals.

The gadgets retain the upper hand over mobile phones, thanks to fears the latter may interfere with delicate hospital equipment.

At least that's what your doctors will tell you if they trade in their pager for a new putter or four iron.

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