During his Fall COMDEX 2002 keynote address, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates briefly unveiled the company's Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) initiative, in which everyday devices such as alarm clocks, wristwatches, key chains, and even refrigerator magnets are made more intelligent through a new hardware and software platform that is small enough to scale down to the sizes required by such devices. The COMDEX keynote used a smart alarm clock as an example. But by the time the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) rolled around in January 2003, Microsoft had much more to say about SPOT and the types of devices we can expect to see, beginning late this year. This preview will discuss those details and my impressions of using a prototype smart wristwatch.

SPOT-on: An overview of the SPOT platform

Three years ago, Microsoft Research began looking into connecting everyday objects and making them smarter. As Gates noted during his COMDEX keynote, and at least two other Microsoft representatives related to me privately the week of the 2003 CES, the company was amazed that word of the SPOT project was never leaked. Originally, Microsoft Research spent several months simply talking to customers about how everyday objects might be made smarter. That information was collated into scenarios in which technology could be applied effectively--making the devices "better, smarter, faster, stronger, the whole thing," Microsoft Research's Bill Mitchell said.

What eventually became obvious was that the devices Microsoft would be tackling were typically even smaller than today's smallest palm-sized devices, like cell phones and Pocket PCs. The devices would require a tiny, modular OS--based on Windows CE .NET, naturally--and a new wireless networking scheme that would work virtually anywhere, at any time. And these devices should be reasonably inexpensive.

For the first generation of SPOT devices, Microsoft is focusing on time pieces such as wristwatches and alarm clocks, which seems logical enough as these devices are already designed to display critical information. But clearly, the technology can be applied to a much wider array of devices, and will be in the near future. Before getting into specifics, consider what every timepiece does today, which is tell time. Some timepieces add other functionality, such as alarms with snooze features, or perhaps a stop-watch feature.

A timepiece based on the SPOT will perform these functions as well, of course, but it will do so in an improved fashion. First, you will never have to set the time or date on a SPOT timepiece as it will always know the correct information. And the time, date, and correct time zone will adapt as you move around. And it will always be accurate, as well, thanks to automatic wireless synchronization. "It's atomic clock accurate," Microsoft Research's Roger Gulranjani told me.

Because this timepiece is based on SPOT, it will have other functionality as well. For example, it will be personalized to understand the needs of your schedule. If the traffic on your commute is particular heavy, the snooze feature might be more insistent, perhaps, or it might let you know how much time you have before a flight leaves. The types of information it understands are configurable, giving you a totally personalized device.

So far, I've been discussing SPOT and SPOT timepieces in generalities. At the time of Fall COMDEX 2002, this was pretty much all we knew about this technology. But with the arrival of CES 2003, Microsoft has released much more information, including details about the first generation SPOT devices, which will ship later this year. Here's what I found out.

Watching more than the time

The first round of SPOT devices will be wristwatches. I suspect Microsoft won't appreciate this comparison very much, but the SPOT watches are basically an evolution of the Timex Data Sync watches, which is obvious when you consider the functional similarities. And like the Timex watches, the first generation SPOT watches will suffer from a slight case of prodigious expanse. That is, they're huge. Way too large for any woman, and too large for many men. That said, I still think the first generation watches will see some success, which I'll explain below. But Gulranjani showed me his original, non-functional prototype watch, which he used to woo watchmakers into the SPOT camp last year. While still larger than most watches, the size of the original prototype is probably going to be desirable to a far wider audience than the watches we'll see this fall. Microsoft is aware of this, and working toward making them smaller.

SPOT watches sport a 120 x 90 black and white LCD display, and a tiny bit of Windows CE .NET silicon, along with the hardware needed to connect to DirectBand, Microsoft's new wireless network, discussed in detail below. Driving each watch is an ARM CPU running at 28 MHz, with 512 KB of ROM and 384 KB of RAM. "That's four times the speed and 8 times the memory of the first IBM PC," Gates noted. Natively, the devices run .NET bytecode, he said.

From a usability perspective, the watches feature a "Glance Mode," which can be a standard watch display with time and/or date, or any other type of information you might configure. For example, you might configure your watch to display the time normally, using one of a dozen built-in watch face designs. But when an event occurs--such as a sports game score, change in the weather, or stock price increase, the watch might alert you to the event with a little vibration or alarm. After you glance at the watch to see what's up, Glance Mode will return to the normal time display.

"This is the next generation of what the watch should be," Gates said during his CES 2003 keynote address. "You pick a channel, weather perhaps. It handles the time zone change and sends messages to the watch. It's been a while since watch technology has improved."

Users configure their watch with a Web page that includes personalization features channels. The following channels were demonstrated at CES 2003:

  • Watch Face - Receive downloadable watch face graphics that change the look of your watch. Gulrajani told me that watchmakers would also be making their own watch faces as one way of differentiating their products from competitors.

  • Messages - Receive personal instant messages on your watch. This wasn't specifically addressed, but I assume integration with MSN Messenger is a given.


  • News - Stay informed with news pertinent to you and your location.


  • Weather - Weather reports for your city, and cities all over the world.


  • Sports -- Get timely sports scores, highlights, and news.


  • Stocks - Continuous updates for just the stocks you care about.


  • Calendar - View times and locations for events and concerts important to you.


  • Glance (mode) - Scroll through the information important to you without pressing a button.


  • Traffic - Plan travel routes based on current traffic conditions.


  • Movies - Browse movies by title, location or time.


  • Dining - Receive restaurant locations for your current location.


  • Games - Puzzles, word games, and action games.

The Web site also lets you manage your watch(es) under a My Watch section, were you will enter the unique ID number that accompanies the device. Also, you manage billing information from the Web page. Yes, there's going to be a subscription fee. I'll discuss that more in the Availability section, below, along with watch pricing.

"This is not a geek watch," Gates said. "It's a lifestyle device. It's complementary to what we have already, but a sea change in functionality." It might be complementary, but it's definitely a geek watch. For one thing, SPOT watches will need to be charged, like a PDA. However, Microsoft is looking into ways to make this seamless for the user, and its possible that watch companies will include slick charging pads with their devices instead of a standard charging cable. That way, you could lay your watch down on the nightstand or table each night as usual, and it would be completely charged overnight. I suspect we'll see more details about this process emerge by WinHEC in April. Another possibility is solar power, Gulranjani told me. "The key thing with battery life is the long weekend scenario," he said, "so we want a minimum of three days of battery life for these watches. Anything more is a bonus."

DirectBand: One wireless network to rule them all

SPOT devices wouldn't be too exciting on their own, especially if users had to manually connect to a Web site or an application to synchronize data. So one of the primary goals of the SPOT initiative was to find some way to provide always-connected networking capabilities so that the devices could be constantly updated. The solution is pretty elegant: Microsoft has created a new one-way networking protocol called DirectBand that adds data to the extra bandwidth available on the FM radio signal. SPOT watches listen to FM frequencies, and pull down the appropriate personalized data when it's available. Each DirectBand signal is encrypted with private/public key mechanism that's based on a unique identifier supplied with each watch. Even Microsoft doesn't have access to the user database, Gulranjani said, since those numbers will be applied at manufacturing. The end result is that only your watch can get your information. If you lose the watch, just go to the Web site and turn it off.

One hilarious feature the company is considering is a constant alarm that can go off if the watch is stolen: That way, the watch is not only useless to whoever steals it, but annoying as well. Gulranjani told me that Bill Gates actually came up with this idea during an SPOT update meeting last year.

Another side-note about DirectBand: The network has been in place for months in several US cities so that Microsoft employees and testers can test the watches and services. Because Las Vegas is one of those cities, we were able to get live updates from the real working service while at CES.

Availability

The SPOT watches offer exciting functionality but seem somewhat limited by their size. Microsoft, however, says it's aware of the problem, and through testing with over 4000 consumers, they've established that a healthy market exists for the first generation devices. The target market includes three main customer groups, two of which, trendsetters and young mobile achievers, fall into the critical 18-35 year old age range. The third group, sports enthusiasts, transcend age limits and may just constitute the largest market. As a New England Patriots season ticker holder, I appreciate the need to get constant score updates from other games when you're at the game. And as Microsoft told me, NFL Football is indeed the number one sport in this country, and over 12 million people play Fantasy Football every season.

Another issue, of course, is content providers. Microsoft is working now to attract more content providers to the platform and will make more announcements over the year. One thing the company won't be doing is opening SPOT up to all developers, and you won't see a SPOT SDK on MSDN any time soon. That's because of the protected nature of DirectBand and the unique identifiers given to each watch owner. Companies interested in developing for SPOT will need to work directly with Microsoft.

The primary issue, however, is cost. Microsoft told me that SPOT watches will cost "$130 on up," and it's conceivable that some high-end watches could cost thousands of dollars. Companies such as Citizen, Fossil and Suunto have signed on to make a wide variety of SPOT watches, each which will target particular markets. Another question is the monthly service fee, and yes there will be monthly service fee. Microsoft hasn't yet worked out this issue, but it's possible that certain services will be free, while others are value-adds. That's just speculation on my part, however, and Gulranjani didn't offer any concrete plans, other than the admission that the company was still unsure who would even eventually provide the services.

"As a core attribute, the watches will always tell time," Gulranjani told me. "If you drop the service or are temporarily out of range, it will still work. The customer shouldn't know if they're in or out of range. Instead, it's seamless, and not like a cell phone. The information is always there. If you're online, its downloading. If you're offline, it's still there."

Conclusions

To prove how useful these devices can be, Gulranjani asked a pointed question during our interview. "Just try finding the weather in Seattle on your cell phone right now," he said. "Can you do it?" He then held up a SPOT watch prototype, hit a few buttons and laughed, "Huh. It's 55 degrees and drizzling. Go figure." Microsoft realizes that SPOT watches won't replace cell phones, but they are a new way of getting personalized information to your wrist, quickly and easily. And based on my first look at these devices, I'm impressed with the technology and a little reticent about the size, though again, I don't think this will be a problem for sports enthusiasts, especially skiers and participants in various extreme sports, who want just a quick glance at time and other data before moving on.

So will SPOT be successful? Yes, I think so, though the first generation watches will see little impact on mainstream consumers. But it's clear that SPOT is here to stay, and an almost mind-blowing capabilities expansion for the sorts of everyday products we frankly don't think much about normally.