SPOTty Coverage

Wireless Center Editor John R. Quain wonders if anything will ever come of Microsoft's wireless network.

Information at your fingertips. Seamless computing. Call it what you will, its convergence by any other name. Of course, you cant converge anything without getting everything connected, and you cant have everything connected unless you go wireless.

So a year ago Microsoft introduced a program for making quotidian objects wirelessly connected to the great big blue Net in the sky. Dubbed Smart Personal Objects Technology or SPOT, the general idea was to put tiny wireless receivers into everything from pendants to watches. Well, now the first SPOT watches are out and the reviews are in.

The $129 Fossil and $299 Suunto SPOT watches get you connected to the grid by receiving radio signals that do things like automatically correct the time on your watch, display current stock prices, news headlines, and weather forecasts. You can set the watch via MSN Direct online to get local information for the city you are traveling to, tell it to accept instant messages from MSN Messenger users, or sync up with your Outlook calendar. The SPOT radio network currently covers the 100 top United States population centers, according to Fossil. Microsoft says theyve also just added the top 6 metro areas in Canada (hey, there are fewer people up in the Great White North).

Initially, I thought this was, as Bill Gates so is fond of saying, the stupidest thing Id ever heard. But now, after talking to folks at Microsoft and Fossil, Im not so sure. It may only be the second stupidest thing Ive ever heard.

What makes SPOT possible are two tiny National Semiconductor chips inside the watches. One chip is the radio; the other is the application chip. To run it all, Microsoft got its software down to under 100 KB.

The other side of the equation is the wireless network. To create it, Microsoft leased unused FM subcarrier channels from individual radio stations across the country. Then they went out to each transmission tower to install generators and an uplink. The uplink from Microsofts servers can be satellite, ISDN, or frame relay, depending on the transmission towers facilities.

MSN then organizes the information on servers dedicated to each of the local radio stations. That way, when you arrive in LA, you get local weather information and smaze alerts. The servers also route instant messages and calendar information. In most markets theres also built-in redundancy with more than one radio station broadcasting the same information.

On the face of it, the SPOT system seems to have a couple of advantages. The radio stations love it because they are once again getting revenue from subcarrier leases. Microsoft likes it because the company doesnt have to build its own towers. And theres enough bandwidth (about 125 megabytes per day per radio station) right now to transmit plenty of weather and news information. However, there are several downsides to this approach.

Even though Microsoft notes that power requirements for SPOT receivers is very low—at least lower than that for Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices--power drain is still an issue. Consequently, you have to charge your watch every couple of days (I only have to worry about my Omega once a year, thank you very much, and I never have to take it off). The headlines are often inscrutable haiku (and you thought the crawls on CNN are badly written). And it will cost you $9.95 a month for service...thats on top of your monthly TiVo bill, cell phone bill, Sirius bill, etc., etc.

The main reason I thought SPOT was dumb, however, was that its strictly a one-way service. Think of it as push technology for your wrist. Theres no way to respond to a message or e-mail. So it fails to live up to the Dick Tracy dream of a cell phone, e-mail device, and video phone wrapped your wrist.

Bill Mitchell, Microsofts vice president of the mobile platforms division in Windows, was quick to point out to me that the two-way service was debated in focus groups. Early testers questioned the idea of being able to receive but not reply to instant messages, for example. However, most concluded that trying to respond using a tiny keyboard on the watch face wasnt a practical idea or something they would use very often. There were also practical technical considerations, Mitchell points out, including power consumption.

Nevertheless, the result is that SPOT simply seems like a cool version of the pager. True, its inconspicuous compared to a Blackberry, so you can glance down and get a message off your wrist without drawing annoyed stares in a meeting. But it still just seems like, well, a really cool pager. In the meantime, Wi-Fi equipped devices proliferate, with cameras, cell phones, and PDAs appearing. And the Wi-Fi chips are getting smaller (witness Broadcoms chip for mobile handsets).

Mitchell wouldnt divulge just what other devices Microsoft is planning for its SPOT network, but he did say they would be more innovative. It reminded me of what my technology obsessed neighbor said to me—with a straight face--after I complained about the SPOT watches:

"Yeah, but wait until version 3.0—itll be awesome."