It feels so retro, this wireless wristwatch from Microsoft.
While most technology firms were chasing the Next Big Thing, the Redmond software giant spent the past two years secretly tinkering with FM radio -- one of the last big things -- to adapt it to info-crazed life in the 21st century.
At the Consumer Electronics Show here last week, Gates announced a Microsoft subscription network called DirectBand that will beam super-short text updates (Snow tonight; Stop4 Milk; Dow Drops 400) over FM radio to watches, alarm clocks, magnets and other mundane objects. The DirectBand network is up and running, as are several dozen prototype watches, but the service and watches won't be commercially available until September.
Microsoft calls this hybrid technology SPOT, for "Smart Personal Object Technology." SPOT transmits data over radio frequencies to special silicon chips with FM receivers custom-made by National Semiconductor. In addition to developing tiny FM receivers that consume little power, Microsoft tweaked radio protocols and wrote software to read unique identifying numbers in each SPOT device so it can deliver the precise information each user wants. Subscribers will personalize their updates from a Web site.
Three watchmakers -- Fossil, Citizen and Suunto -- announced they will release wireless Microsoft watches this year. In addition to news, weather and stock updates, the watches and similar SPOT devices will receive text messages from any instant-messenger software and display personal calendar entries. Users will pay a service fee that hasn't been set but is likely to be less than $12 a month.
Critics scoffed that sending data over FM radio is yesterday's news. After all, Seiko discontinued the FM-radio "Messenger Watch" it released in the mid-1990s after disappointing sales, and several paging companies previously tried and failed to make money sending data over leased FM spectrum. Critics also questioned why anyone would subscribe to a one-way data watch when you can do so much more with today's two-way cell phones.
Timex, for instance, sells a $50 "Internet Messenger" watch that uses the Skytel paging network to receive data updates. But Wilson Keithline, director of advanced products, said the company has sold fewer of the Internet watches than it had expected -- fewer than 100,000 -- possibly because paging networks face heightened competition from cell-phone companies.
But to me, the FM-radio angle is what makes DirectBand a fascinating new player in the race to deliver wireless data. That's because FM radio allows Microsoft to compete with cell-phone companies using a network that costs considerably less than their expensive cellular networks.
Even if the idea misses the mark, I'm convinced that other breakthroughs are coming from this what's-old-is-new school of innovation. You can count on more makeovers of existing technology and commonplace objects, things that are already part of our lives and won't require big behavioral changes. That's the strategy behind SPOT: Microsoft is trying to weasel its way onto our refrigerator doors, alarm clocks, pendants and other objects we use every day.
People in the audience snickered when Gates showed off a teeny magnet he had customized to receive traffic updates from Seattle. But his point was that such info-magnets could have a gazillion other specialized uses and be affixed almost anywhere -- on briefcases, wallets, key chains, watch fobs.
"Imagine if I had a button -- a SPOT magnet -- that I bought from my school," said Keith Wintraub, Microsoft's product manager for SPOT. "Now every morning I know at a glance whether school is closing early, if it's a snow day, when music night is and when football practice is."
You can theoretically do that now, of course, using existing Web sites and networks that zap updates to cell phones, pagers and handheld computers. But anyone who uses today's mobile gizmos knows the pitfalls -- not only are they heavier than a watch, they typically have a shorter battery life. And because most attempt to accomplish too much, you usually have to wade through a maze of menus just to find a local weather forecast or breaking news.
SPOT gadgets have only a few channels. One is labeled "glance" to convey the idea of abbreviated text on itsy-bitsy display screens. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will be able to achieve "glanceability" any better than cell phone makers have. I have my doubts.
But in the area of portability and longer battery life, SPOT gadgets seem to have the edge. National Semiconductor reports that the first watch models will require a recharge every three to five days, giving them a longer life between charges than most cell phones. That time will quickly lengthen, National Semiconductor says, as its engineers continue shrinking the components.
Another advantage of the DirectBand network is how it piggybacks on radio stations.
"That's part of what makes this an attractive business for Microsoft to roll out," says Jeff Littlejohn, senior vice president of engineering at Clear Channel Communications, a radio conglomerate that has leased spectrum to Microsoft in the nation's top 100 markets. "Our cost of transmission is low, our infrastructure is already there, and SPOT involves almost no extra infrastructure costs for us."
Microsoft did not disclose what it's paying Clear Channel or the other broadcasters (Entercom Communications, Greater Media and Rogers Communications) that have leased spectrum to Microsoft. Littlejohn would not disclose business terms, either, but said a typical FM "subcarrier" lease in New York runs around $18,000 a month. Once the service is commercially available, Microsoft aims to be up and running in the nation's top 100 metropolitan areas.
As for hardware, Microsoft said its costs for the coin-size circuit boards inside each device will be less than $10. And while the first generation of watches is likely to start at $100, you can count on cheaper, less fashionable models to hit the market within a year.
For a Web video from Las Vegas about the SPOT watches, and a photo tour of the Consumer Electronics show, visit www.technews.com. Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.