MS bids for lucrative wristwatch, fridge magnet markets

But actually, we think there's a sneaky network play here...

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Bill Gates yesterday announced the Microsoft watch, possibly causing a certain amount of look and feel inconvenience to one columnist friend of ours. But we're sure Mary-Jo will be filing the suit already, so we'll move on.

Microsoft is reinventing numerous wheels with what it has dubbed SPOT, Smart Personal Objects Technology. SPOT is intended to embed some form of information capability into everday objects, giving you 'glanceable' access to useful data. Which Microsoft execs will cheerfully tell you consists of news, the weather and, er sports scores. Which about sums up every wannabe ubiquitous consumer information device revolution. What would you do with it? Well, you can get news, weather and, er, sports scores. Oh, and calendar, it can do calendar too. And if you wait a minute maybe I'll say 'recipes.'

Enough, however, of the imagination failure that was the mobile phone industry two years ago and is Microsoft today; let's look at those reinventions.

The demo SPOT units are wristwatches and fridge magnets, which seems to us contradictory from a ubiquity point of view. Practically everybody has a watch, here in Europe people have nearly as many of them as they have mobile phones, and practically everybody has the watch with them all the time. But not fridges. We know that the European fridge industry is sadly underdeveloped compared to the US, but even there, we're almost certain, very few people have a fridge with them all the time. Nor are they near the fridge all the time. And if they are, they can't read the fridge magnet because the door's always open.

But at least it gave a minion the opportunity to say "here I have some very rich magnets" in Bill Gates' keynote yesterday. The word 'rich', as you'll note if you search the text for it, is well up in Microsoft's top ten faves.

Wristwatches, however, are definitely ubiquitous, so they're an opportunity, and SPOT addresses this as follows. The design uses an ARM chip with a little bit of ROM and RAM, and what Microsoft calls a microkernel real time operating system. Which in this kind of hardware wristprint probably really has to be true, this time. It incorporates a radio receiver, and uses DirectBand, which Microsoft terms a technology but which we have our doubts about, to pick up information broadcast via FM subcarrier technology.

So Microsoft (or whoever) uses this pipe to broadcast information via FM radio stations. This is in concept kind of like digital radio, and very like pager networks; Microsoft even talks of having them receive messages, but although Bill seems to say they'll send as well, this is clearly either a mispeak or a typo - this will not be feasible for quite some time, and will require different technologies.

The choice of network, and indeed chums, is interesting. Pager and mobile phone networks can currently do pretty well all that SPOT will do, and some, but although Microsoft doesn't mention music when it's chanting the news, weather, sports scores mantra, in this sense the radio stations are sensible people to buddy up to. They have news and information, and/or they have entertainment to promote. They could perhaps even be persuaded that there's sufficient of an opportunity here for them to give Microsoft licence money, rather than for them to rent Microsoft the spectrum.

Microsoft has also likely spotted digital radio's potential. This is finally starting to take off in Europe, and the US not invented here version, IBOC, was approved by the FCC last September. Among the good points of digital radio is that it is effectively broadband, and can even be set up to do internet provided you have a return pipe. The radio stations will be players in digital radio (well, obviously...) so although the current SPOT FM WAN system might look like a blind alley, it's maybe a useful mark down in the right places.

Bad points about digital radio currently include size - they're smaller than they were, but absolutely no way are you getting a receiver into a watch-style package any time soon. Stop, though, thinking about whether or not the Microsoft watch will sink without trace, and start thinking about what SPOT stands for - i.e., anything and everything.

Really, the sense of SPOT is nothing to do with watches and fridge media experiences. It's a network play, designed to carve Microsoft a place in a broadcast market that some people have started to notice, but that's still pretty fragmented. If the network is there, then the devices can be anywhere, and anything. Some of them could be small, but others wouldn't have to be - they could be in cars, getting the traffic reports, they could be in PCs, or they could even be in mobile phones. The chips are intended to be small, cheap and low power, so the functionality could effectively be viewed as free, and so long as Microsoft gets the data broadcast networks right, it could end up owning a whole new channel.

If this comes to pass, it will be interesting to see how the charging works. The first generation of devices will have unique IDs, and there's some potential there. They'll be able to hook up to PCs, so that could provide a return pipe for authorisation of paid for services, and Microsoft also talks of using them as some kind of universal security authorisation, instead of smartcard, car keys or whatever. Nightmare, yes, agreed, but authorisation implies a revocation ability, so although the device itself can't be zeroed remotely by design, the devices it interacts with have to be able to know instantly if its security is compromised. Lob in Bluetooth, infrared of some kind of local radio transmit capability (you weren't going to unlock your car with a real key, were you?) and there's some more communications potential added to the picture.

So there you go. In the world of the future Microsoft owns your front door, your car, everything electronic everywhere, everything that didn't use to be electronic but is now, the ubiquitous broadcast data networks, and it can maybe even kill your dog if you forgot to renew its rabies innoculation. Happy new year.

But to cheer you up, remember electronic watches are sometimes products out of their time.

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