"The wrist," says Bill Mitchell, "is the beachfront property on the body."
Mitchell, one of Microsoft's Big Thinkers, has spent the last three years of his career figuring out how to plant the company's beach umbrella on that very space, so he has a tendency to say things like this.
He's the director of the company's Smart Personal Object Technology division, the software maker's latest move to make Microsoft technology unavoidable. If Mitchell is successful, your next wristwatch will do more than tell you what time it is; it'll also display your schedule for the day, stock quotes, weather reports and traffic updates and will relay instant messages from your office and friends.
In targeting the watch and the wrist, the software giant is just this week's news. It has a lot of company, past and present, in this pursuit of this Holy Grail of the tech-gadget world -- including an attempt in its own past. Why the wrist as a place to park technology? To start, says Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research, most people don't have to remember to take their wristwatch with them in the morning. A watch is so personal, it's practically part of the wearer's body.
"It's in a category we call 'invisible,' " he said. "It transcends the notion of having to carry another item -- like a PDA, a cell phone or a laptop -- to hold your information."
And there's another attractive aspect. As a potential market for Microsoft or any other company, it certainly doesn't hurt that the wristwatch industry sells about a billion watches a year.
Trenches to Trenchcoats
In the grand scheme of things, the wristwatch isn't really all that much older than the computer. Watches started to make a regular appearance on wrists only after World War I, when Army officers found early models -- they looked like pocket watches attached to a wrist strap -- better for synchronizing movements, and much more efficient than digging in uniform pockets and inside greatcoats.
Civilians caught on in the 1920s. And the high-tech fantasy of strapping a smart piece of technology onto one's wrist kicked in in the '30s, with comic-strip detective Dick Tracy and his two-way wrist radio. It has regularly floated in and out of pop culture ever since. The 1960s spy spoof "Get Smart" furnished bumbling spy Maxwell Smart most famously with his shoe phone. But he also made use of a watch containing a mini-phonograph player, one that had an antenna to reach things and one that furnished a garrote, the better for strangling the evildoers of KAOS. In 1973, James Bond's Rolex came with a handy electromagnetic, bullet-deflecting feature in "Live and Let Die." And the '80s saw David Hasselhoff whispering into his digital watch whenever he needed to summon his computerized supercar in the TV show "Knight Rider."
But for all the fictional visions of the super-smart watch, there have been enough failed real-world products to fill a display case.
In 1972, for example, chipmaker Intel Corp. became convinced that digital watches would become a new high-tech business requiring innovative microchips. So the company acquired a watchmaker called Microma. The watches were of notoriously poor quality, and when competitors began selling digital watches for $10, Intel quickly jumped out of the business. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore still occasionally wears his Microma, which he refers to as his "$15 million watch," a not-so-subtle reference to how much the foray into watches cost the company.
Hewlett Packard Co. tried its hand at a calculator-watch instrument in 1977, the HP-01, which sold, poorly, for a whopping $650 ($750 if you wanted the gold version). "Clumsy and cumbersome -- long on technology and short on fashion" was how HP co-founder David Packard remembered the product in his memoirs.
Jump forward a couple of decades, to 1999, when HP chief executive Carly Fiorina wore a Swatch watch onstage at the Comdex trade show and announced that HP was teaming up with Swatch to make a new Internet-enabled timepiece that would deliver customized news to its wearer -- a description that sounds pretty similar to the new Microsoft watches. No such watch was ever released, and the company was mum on that product's fate this week.
There are even current examples on the market, a Speedpass watch from Timex (a swipe of the wrist buys gas at Mobil or Exxon or a hamburger and fries at McDonald's) and Casio's wrist camera/watch, electronic memo pad/watch and TV remote control/watch, of all things.
Using SPOT technology, Microsoft's high-tech watch wearers would receive news and instant messages by picking up customized information transmitted on FM radio waves on a nationwide network that Microsoft is in the process of building by leasing airwave space from radio stations in major cities. This would entail a subscription service, of course, with a monthly fee.
Strangely, the technology used to make the SPOT chips has roots in the early days of the video-game industry. In 1984, engineer Larry Karr, founder of a small firm called SCA Data, developed an early version of the technology at the behest of video-game company Atari as a way to wirelessly deliver games to the Atari 2600 game console. But the game company went under and the product never saw the light of day. Karr used the modern equivalent of that same technology to help Microsoft design the new chips.
Three watchmakers, Fossil, Citizen and the Finnish company Suunto, have signed on to make SPOT watches, which should be available starting in the holiday season of this year. Microsoft has said the watches will start at about $150, though it hasn't announced what the monthly or yearly price will be to subscribe to the network service.
This new revenue stream would depend on nothing less than changing the very way people think about time.
"We're trying to expand the notion of time so that people think not just of time, but to the things that time is linked to," said Mitchell. In other words, people don't care that it's 12:40 p.m., they care about the fact that they've got a meeting across town in 20 minutes. Having timely information on your wrist, such as traffic conditions or weather, could be just as important as knowing the clock time, he argues.
Mitchell, as it happens, was a key player in an earlier attempt to wed the computer to the wristwatch. The first product he worked on at Microsoft was the Timex Data Link watch in the early '90s, which stored appointments and messages. To sync it up with their computers, users had to hold the watch up to their computer screen, which transmitted information to the watch by flashing a series of bar codes.
Timex is sitting out on SPOT watches for now, however. Wilson Keithline, director of advanced development at Timex, said the company rejected a partnership with Microsoft on this technology in order to focus on its own attempts at advanced watch products, such as the Speedpass watch.
Much of Mitchell's work comes down to one potential customer: his boss, Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft. Ballmer, head of the most powerful tech company in the world, doesn't wear a watch and doesn't carry a cell phone -- because he doesn't like to be interrupted.
"He'll point at his wrist during meetings and say, 'Still no watch here!' " said Mitchell.
Ballmer has promised the SPOT development team he'll start wearing a SPOT watch if it lets his administrative assistant unobtrusively message him during meetings and lets him follow baseball games on the fly.
Is Fashion Still Fickle?
One of the lessons Microsoft says it has learned from previous generations of computerized watches is the importance of fashion -- and that fashion may not be one of Microsoft's core competencies. In the past, watches with computer technology have typically appealed only to the pocket-protector crowd, not the average department-store shopper.
Donald Brewer, vice president of technology at the fashion-watch firm Fossil, thinks the stars are in proper alignment this time.
"Luckily we're in an era where big chunky-shaped watches are becoming very fashionable," said Brewer. "Walk through a Macy's and you'll see incredibly large watches."
Fossil has enlisted French home-furnishings designer Philippe Starck to design one line of SPOT watches. Fossil is also working on two other lines, one of which will be sold in electronics stores, the other in department stores.
Fossil has also developed a watch that uses Palm software, effectively making the watch a personal digital assistant. The Wrist PDA, as Fossil calls it, is scheduled for release late this spring.
Analyst reaction on whether this technology could be another success for Microsoft has been a little on the muted side. Given the history of smart watches, it's certainly safer to be pessimistic.
Some bet that people won't care about carrying their schedules on their wrists. "There has definitely been a trend toward offering the user more features," said Keith W. Strandberg, watch editor of National Jeweler, a trade magazine. "But I don't think everybody's going to want this. . . . I don't think this is going to change the watch industry as we know it."
Others bet that Microsoft will make an overly complicated interface that turns consumers off. "I'm deeply skeptical that Microsoft can make something simple and elegant, given their pedigree," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future think tank in Menlo Park, Calif.
For Saffo, the watch has already inspired a joke. "I like the idea of a Microsoft watch," he said, "because if they build it like they build Windows, I'll have the perfect excuse for being late to meetings: My watch crashed."
Some potential customers are taking the upcoming product seriously, though. Alex Fiskin, a Web developer in Fairfax, said he'd been following the news of SPOT watches and thinks he may replace his Rolex with one, depending on the cost of the monthly network service. "Five dollars to $10 wouldn't be unreasonable," he said.
Larry Karr, at SCA Data, worked with Microsoft for two years to fine-tune the technology behind SPOT but hadn't seen one of the finished watches until he got to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, where the watch finally made its debut.
"I was like, 'Wow! It works -- it really works!' " he said. "It may even be successful commercially. I can imagine using it, you know?"
If it isn't, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer will have their own versions of the Intel $15 million watch. And the display case filled with smart watches will have to make room for a couple more.