TO THE common British technophobe, a pager is one of those strange, squat objects which nestles comfortably on the belt buckles of plumbers. Or maybe of drug dealers in The Bill. Most of us have no idea how they work and if we could be bothered to find out, would be put off buying one by hidden rental and airtime costs.

But things are about to change. New ranges of fun and funky off-the-peg pagers have been launched by Mercury and British Telecom, in an attempt to get more of us to become pager-literate. They are aimed mainly at the young and socially restless. 'Pagers are perfect for the 20-24 age group,' claims Simon Crellin, spokesman for Mercury. Why? 'Well, they're ideal for people who go clubbing, change venues more than once in the evening and aren't sure which pub they want to go to next.'

The idea is that buying a pager is as simple as buying a Walkman: you just pay for it, take it away and use it, with no hidden costs or reems of paperwork. (That said, priced from around pounds 80 up to pounds 120, the pagers are not exactly cheap.) You are given a number which your friends can call for 20-25p a time. They will be answered by an operator and can leave either a telephone number or a coded message (helpful suggestions from Mercury include 1664 - fancy a beer?

-and 69 for a hot date). This number will then flash up on your pager.

Much effort has been put into making these pagers 'young'. Mercury's MiniCall is a small, clear blue clip-on, groovily decorated with lightning flashes. It either bleeps when pages come in or vibrates strangely. But BT may have scooped the teen-cred style prize. Together with Swatch, the Swiss watch giants, it has come up with 'Swatch the Bleep', a kind of mock-crocodile-skin watch-cum-pager.

When similar mini-pagers were introduced in Sweden, young people went mad for them. So, full of enthusiasm, I gave two sets of friends my pager number before I setting off for a hectic evening of socialising: first to an after-work drinks party, then on for dinner with a girlfriend and finally planning to meet up with some friends at a bar.

Throughout the party the pager remained disappointingly silent. It didn't bleep while I was on my way to the restaurant either and by the end of the meal still no-one had paged me, so I headed home in a huff.

There, on my answering machine were messages from both groups of friends, who'd lost the bleeper number. A minor blip these little items don't cater for. (Photograph omitted)