On Watch for Intelligent Objects

Content and user interface are the most obvious but least important challenges for future Net devices.

From a long tradition of unfortunate code names comes "Paparazzi," the family name announced last week for a line of wireless data devices from the dynamic duo of Microsoft and Swatch. Whether you like the name or hate it—my stand, Im sure, is apparent—these devices represent more than their obvious challenges to developers.

I have to take a moment to observe that this is one really awful trademark. But look at the history: Microsoft has already had to abandon the code name of "Hailstorm," a word without a single positive association, for its personal Web services offering. Swatch, for its part, deserves some kind of medal for its mega-weird notion of "Beats," a proposed unit of universal no-zones Internet Time at 1000 Beats per day. What was wrong with Zulu?

Put these two marketing teams in the same room, and youd almost expect them to come up with a trademark like "Paparazzi"—a word derived from the name of an annoying character in a Fellini film, newly celebrated (if thats the word) in a movie produced by Mel Gibson, and internationally recognized as a nickname for someone who shoves his annoying hardware in your face.

If we put the unfortunate MicroSwatch trademark aside, we can see that Paparazzi is actually ... um, well, an unfortunate idea. Its the latest incarnation of Microsofts Smart Personal Object Technology or SPOT. (The latter, it seems to me, is another ill-chosen name: When I hear "spot," I think of Lady Macbeth trying to wash her hands of something that didnt work out as planned. I suppose, though, that SPOT was better than the original proposal: I put Dan Rathers fact-checking team on the job, and they confirmed that whats now called SPOT was originally dubbed Microsoft Accessories for Compressing Bit-based Entertainment into Tiny Hardware. But I digress.)

The crucial question is, whats the import for application developers? It would be easy to get sidetracked by the interesting problem of writing applications that tailor themselves to the available client resources—to adapt without user intervention to the full-screen displays of PCs, the small-screen displays of PDAs and cell phones, and the tiny-screen displays of smart wristwatches. We can have a lot of fun with the XML tricks, for example, that make this possible with minimal redundant code.

Its clear, though, that in the not-too-distant future, the Internet needs to become a backplane inhabited more by devices communicating with each other than by devices (or people) consuming the increasingly scarce time and attention of (other) people. The best user interface is no user interface: Consuming the users attention is a defect, not a feature.

Next page: Nicholas Negropontes dream house.