Loser: A Dog Named SPOT

When Microsoft stops imitating and starts innovating, watch out

Image: Microsoft

Remember Bob, that goofy cartoon icon that was going to make Microsoft desktop software all warm and fuzzy for PC newbies?

In his keynote speech at Comdex Fall 2002, Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates, in a calculated yet endearingly self-deprecating moment, raised the smiley-faced specter of Bob before introducing what looks to be another monosyllabic loser from his deep-pocket minions in Redmond, Wash.: SPOT, or Smart Personal Objects Technology.

Slated for introduction last October but delayed until this month, SPOT 1.0 will be a US $129 to $299 digital wristwatch from watchmakers Fossil Inc., Richardson, Texas, and Suunto Oy, Vantaa, Finland. The Smart Watch gives you weather, stock quotes, sports scores, headline news, one-way instant messages, Outlook calendar reminders, and finally, the time and date.

Microsoft has partnered with National Semiconductor Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., on a chipset that includes an ARM7 central processing unit, 512MB of ROM, 384MB of static RAM, and a 100-MHz radio receiver chip. Instead of using WinCE, the company's memory-hogging operating system for cellphones and pocket PCs, Smart Watches will use a scaled-down version of Common Language Runtime, a piece of Microsoft's .NET Architecture, to deliver and display SPOT content broadcast over a Microsoft network at about 12 Kb/s.

That network is called DirectBand, and it covers 80 percent of the U.S. population and the country's 100 largest cities. It was cobbled together by leasing FM sub-carrier bandwidth (the space on the dial between stations that's good only for low-bit-rate data transmission) from radio station operators, including Clear Channel, Rodgers Communications, Entercom, and Greater Media. A Smart Watch owner will subscribe on either a monthly or a yearly basis (for about $60) to MSN Direct, the service broadcasting over DirectBand.

"The goal is not to be reading the newspaper on your watch," says Chris Schneider, a program manager with the SPOT technology group at Microsoft. "It's designed to allow one to, with a quick flick of the wrist, get the information they care about."

SPOT, Smart personal objects technology

Goal: Deliver information nuggets to everyday devices like watches and refrigerator magnets via a subscription service broadcast over FM sub-carrier frequencies

Why it's a Loser: People perpetually swim in data provided by their Web-connected computer, cellphone, and PDA. No one's going to pay for another US $200 device and a $60-per-year service fee that gives them the same information they already get for free. Plus you're stuck with a watch you have to recharge every few days

Organizations: Microsoft, Fossil, Suunto Oy, Clear Channel

Center of Activity: Microsoft Research, Redmond, Wash.

Number of People on the Project: Approximately 35 developers, plus 20 marketing and support staff

Budget: US $50 million

Over the last three and a half years, Microsoft has sunk $50 million in R and D funds into SPOT, and has about 35 developers on the project. The buzz about SPOT around other research labs sounds a lot like snickering, though no one wants to put his or her name to a critique. Researchers at Palo Alto Research Center, in California, "literally cannot stop laughing. [But when they do,] they say, 'I can't even begin to talk about this,' " a PARC source told IEEE Spectrum . Four Intel Corp. researchers contacted by Spectrum for their perspective on SPOT also refused to comment. In these days of research collaborations, licensing arrangements, and endless litigation, if you don't have something nice to say about the 800-pound gorilla's latest research baby, you don't say anything at all.

But while industry researchers are understandably shy about giving their honest opinion about SPOT, academics aren't.

"If you've got a wireless PDA, or a cellphone that's Web-enabled, then you could get the same information through those technologies," says Steve Whittaker, a professor in the information studies department at Sheffield University, UK, and a user interface expert.

Alex Slawsby, an analyst in the mobile devices group of IDC Consulting, Framingham, Mass., agrees. "Given the proliferation of other devices that can surf the Web and give you personalized information, and the fact that a lot of people who own watches also own one of those other devices, there's a concern that there's a limited group of people who will say, 'I want my watch to be more,' " he says.

But even that limited group of potential SPOT enthusiasts are accustomed to watch batteries that last for a couple of years. What consumer wants a watch that has to be recharged every few days like a cellphone?

Ultimately, though, how consumers accept SPOT will probably hinge on what kind of information they can get. And there are sharply conflicting opinions on whether that information should be in the specialized or general-interest category and on whether the development of that content should be open source or proprietary.

Bill Buxton, former chief scientist of Alias/Wavefront Inc., Toronto, and later of SGI Inc., Mountain View, Calif., leans toward specialized and open.

Initially, SPOT's content will be pretty generic, "so it will appeal to a lot of people, but I question if the appeal and value will be strong enough to stimulate a new market," says Buxton, now principal of his own consulting firm, Buxton Design, also in Toronto. "If the system is open so that 'information providers' in niche markets can access the network and create new channels, then I think that the whole proposition becomes ever more interesting."

Microsoft's Schneider, on the other hand, envisions a proprietary approach to deliver content with broad appeal. "If a brand-name company wanted to develop its own channel, there's a possibility that at some point people could register to receive, say, the Disney network or news from ABC" on their SPOT watches, says Schneider.

So much for indie niche channels. Then again, SPOT is less about compelling content than it is a component of Microsoft's overall strategy to move beyond the mature desktop OS market. The Xbox game console is a prime example of the company's resolve to compete in the markets it enters, even if it means blowing tens of millions to get there.

"They're trying to get experience in different markets, so if something important happens, they're well positioned to act," Whittaker points out. "They've licensed this bandwidth in an area that could potentially be important."

That strategic move positions SPOT 2.0 to deliver, in a couple of years, customizable, glanceable tidbits on your laptop, PDA, or cellphone. If SPOT doesn't join Bob in the graveyard of PowerPoint punchlines, that is.

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