See SPOT Run ... Around the Carriers

Microsoft's SPOT promises that your watch won't be your grandfather's clock, but its network is conveniently carrier-free.

"Dont <bleep> the carriers," said the senior vice president of a top-tier cell phone manufacturer. Invoking the presence of a Scorsese thug, he thus educated me in one of his secrets to success in the business. Indeed, fear of being bleeped by Microsoft has made it tough for the company to get its embedded platforms deep into any carrier through a handset partner. So, struggling with cellular technologies and bypassing aging paging technologies such as Mobitex, Microsoft is going back to the electronic whiteboard on wireless data.

With the SPOT (Smart Powered Objects Technology) initiative Bill Gates revealed at CES, the software giant teamed with National Semiconductor to produce a tightly integrated chipset that will deliver small snippets of information, initially to watches. Watches are good target devices for the first wave. For all carriers talk about differentiation, the difference between a clamshell and "candy bar" phone is relatively minor. However, from the brownstone-priced jewelry sold at Tourneau to the talking Simpsons promotional items distributed at Burger King, any company can put out some kind of Mickey Mouse watch.

Blasted in the Past

Yet, techie timepieces up until now have imitated celebrity reality shows; devices such as Matsucoms late OnHand PDA were about as slim and tasteful as Anna Nicole Smith and sucked juice like Ozzy Osbourne. Beepwear, a joint venture between Motorola and Timex, largely dissipated into a forgotten Timex stepchild brand. Like SPOT, the Seiko MessageWatch used FM subcarrier technology to beam bits of data, including surfer-dude tide reports, to users of its devices. Unfortunately, as opposed to the relatively high-resolution bitmapped display of the SPOT watches, the MessageWatch used a digit-driven LCD that couldnt display the full English alphabet. This made it about as versatile a messaging device as your average pocket calculator.

So, Microsofts SPOT partners are hedging their bets. Fossil, for instance, is exploring multiple technology directions to ensure it doesnt become its namesake. The company has produced several PDA watches, some based on Palm OS. But Fossil VP Don Brewer reveals some of the hidden agenda when he says, "[The user] doesnt need to get onto his cell phone and spend however long it is to connect to his carrier to find out if its going to rain. He can see that information very quickly on his watch."

That may bode ill for carriers, but it wont necessarily mean success for the watch companies. Microsofts DirectBeam network will distribute wireless data cost-effectively, but Fossil and others will likely have to charge some kind of subscription fee to cover the cost of running the network. If consumers rebuke such a tithe for yet another wireless window to the world, lack of demand could become an effective SPOT remover.

Wireless Supersite editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.