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Microsoft's SPOT Watch Winds Down

Remember the SPOT watch? Of course not. It was a brick-like timepiece, equipped with a radio data receiver and ran Microsoft's Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) software.

Microsoft unveiled this concept at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2003; a year later, the first of these products went on sale. I tested a $300 Suunto model in January 2004 and found it wanting in almost every aspect--too big, too ugly, too useless, too expensive (especially with a $9.95/month subscription charge for Microsoft's MSN Direct data service).

(The review seems to have vanished from our site, but you can read the text of it after the jump.)

I expected the entire concept to die a quiet death, but was shocked to see it still alive three years later. How many people could possibly still have any interest in such a thing?

Well, now this thing's time has run out. (Pun intended. Sorry.) MSN Direct program manager Jon Canan said that SPOT watches are no longer available for sale in a posting on the forum, in which he also noted that the underlying technology will live on in other gadgets:

As of recently, the Smart Watches with MSN Direct have sold out and are no longer for sale. While we continue to move forward with MSN Direct and seeking out new opportunities for devices that would benefit from the MSN Direct service, we, along with our watch partners, do not have immediate plans to create a new version of the Smart Watch, as we are focused on other areas of our business. We will maintain support of our watch customers and continue to deliver information to the watches, but we do not plan to increase our investment in the watch business going forward.

(Note to whoever's in charge of the MSN Direct home page: Now would be a good time to rewrite it.)

The news has since inspired eulogies and discussions at such sites as Engadget, Techdirt and Slashdot. It's an odd product that generates more conversation dead than alive!


Smart Watch: A Product That Has Gotten Out of Hand

By Rob Pegoraro

Until Microsoft's Smart Watch, I'd never seen a product start digging its own grave at its unveiling.

It happened at the Consumer Electronics Show a year ago. As a presenter modeled a chunky prototype (bravely declaring that it wasn't "some geeky tech watch"), a spokesman for Citizen talked up all the great features of these data-enabled gadgets.

But this person's own choice of timepiece exhibited different priorities: The elegantly slim, stylish watch he wore featured little more than hour and minute hands.

It's now a year later, I've just spent three weeks wearing a Smart Watch -- Suunto's $300 n3 -- and I can't wait to put my old watch back on, which only looks good and tells time.

The n3, like four other, cheaper Smart Watch models, does so much more. Using an internal FM receiver, it pulls down headlines, stock quotes, my schedule, instant messages and more, then displays all this data on a sharp, 11/4-inch diameter LCD.

And I couldn't stand it.

At almost 3/4 of an inch thick, the n3 looked like a carrying case for another watch; even my tank-like Soviet Army watch could have fit inside its corpulent contours.

As a result, this not-so-little beast kept getting snagged on the cuffs of dress shirts and a ski jacket -- it was often easier to grab my cell phone to look up the time.

Once people noticed this ingot of black plastic on my wrist, they usually asked the same questions: What is that thing? What does it do? And -- once I'd gone over a Smart Watch's care and feeding -- who would actually want that?

Using a Smart Watch begins with an online activation process (a Microsoft Passport log-in is required) that involves entering your billing info at Microsoft's MSN Direct site.

Yes, these watches come with subscription fees: $9.95 a month or $59.95 a year. That money buys you a thin spread of personalized data: You can choose broad categories of news (The Post is one provider of business headlines), select individual stock tickers and specify weather forecasts.

Calendar info can be sent to your watch only if you use Microsoft Outlook and install a Microsoft plug-in. (Suunto's amateurish setup routine made adding this software twice as hard as necessary.)

MSN Messenger users can send text notes to their watches, but I can't call these messages "instant"; they took about 10 minutes to show up on the watch in my tests.

Microsoft says it's developing other channels, but the only one revealed so far, a sports service, won't be available for another two or three months, a spokesman said.

The Smart Watch software does get one thing right: It makes it a breeze to browse through the MSN Direct data by pressing "channel," "previous" and "next" buttons (all unlabeled on my n3).

If an item comes up that interests you, pressing the "enter" button brings up more detail. It could be the body of the news blurb you just saw, or a five-day chart of a stock, or the remainder of the message that just arrived.

None of this incoming data can be responded to in any way, however. And MSN Direct provides laughably little depth -- especially in its absurdly condensed headlines. Here is the full text of one such item: "Founder of 'Home Rule' Movement Dies: A man whose name is well-known to many Washingtonians has died."

The news feed shows little news judgment. On the night of the New Hampshire primary, my Smart Watch carried no stories about the voting; it did, however, inform me that a conservation plan had been released for the "rarest trout in America."

This IV drip of news brought some unpleasant real-world side effects. After a week, I realized that it was turning me into a selfish jerk who kept looking down at his watch in mid-conversation every time some new tidbit flashed across its face.

Microsoft's license agreement notes a different risk. It tells users not to read messages on the watch "while driving, using machinery, or crossing streets."

This new content only keeps arriving if you stay in range of the signal. A map at Microsoft's site shows far more limited Washington area coverage than even the weakest cell phone service -- for example, all of Prince William County and most of Charles County lie out of reach. (Microsoft says MSN Direct service is available in 110 metropolitan areas across the country.)

The need to keep its FM radio on all the time wore down the n3's battery in a hurry. After five days or so, it flashed a low-battery warning; the next day, the FM receiver automatically shut off, at which point I recharged its non-replaceable battery.

To see what would happen if the battery ran dry, I shut off the watch manually. On reboot, the watch had reset itself to 12:00 a.m., Jan. 1, 2001, then took a good 15 minutes to get the correct time from the FM signal. Setting the time by hand required a lengthy series of button presses to adjust hours, minutes, seconds and time zones.

There's no reason to suffer through this stupidity. If you actually want to get news headlines and instant messages on the go, a cell phone does the job already at less expense -- and lets you respond, not just read.

Why did Microsoft bother? Rick Rashid, the company's head of research, said last January that the idea was to "take everyday devices and make them better at what they do, without turning them into computers."

But what the company wound up doing was giving us yet another manual to digest, yet another AC adapter that has to be packed for vacation, yet another gadget to remove at the airport security line, and yet another subscription charge on your credit card bill. Enough already.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 25, 2008; 2:55 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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'While we continue to move forward with MSN Direct and seeking out new opportunities for devices that would benefit from the MSN Direct service...'


Sorry, tipping point reached.

Posted by: Richard Waddell | April 30, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

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