Microsoft readies SPOT information broadcast service

Microsoft Corp. announced details of a service to transmit information over FM radio to watches equipped with its Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT).

Called MSN Direct, the service will cost US$9.95 per month or $59 a year when it becomes available in the fourth quarter in the U.S. and Canada, Microsoft said Wednesday. SPOT watch buyers will be able to select from a menu of information, including news, stock quotes, weather, traffic and restaurant guides, the Redmond, Washington vendor said.

Additionally, users will be able to receive messages via MSN Messenger and appointment reminders from Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft said. The service will be largely text-based, with some icons for weather reports, for example, Microsoft said.

"This is not for reading the newspaper, but for the micro moments in people's lives, providing perhaps a paragraph of information," said Chris Schneider, program manager at Microsoft's SPOT technology group.

According to one analyst, MSN Direct pricing is very attractive and could help make the SPOT watches a hot holiday gift in December.

"There are very few consumer plans that cost under $10 a month," said Richard Doherty, research director at market researcher The Envisioneering Group, in Seaford, New York. "We think there will be spot shortages of the SPOT products before the end of the year."

Microsoft first talked about SPOT at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last year. Bill Gates, the company's chairman and chief software architect, subsequently announced SPOT partnerships with watchmakers Fossil Inc., Suunto Oy and Citizen Watch Co. in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, also in Las Vegas.

Between six and eight watch styles priced between $150 and $300 will be available from the watch making partners before the Christmas holiday, Schneider said Wednesday.

"Microsoft knows technology, but we don't know fashion very well," he said. After buying a watch at a retailer, the MSN Direct service has to be set up by going to a Web site, registering the watch, picking a price plan and selecting the content services, Schneider said.

The market for the product is "limitless," according to Schneider, although Microsoft does expect that initial users will be Internet-savvy consumers, he said. The average American has three or more watches, he added.

MSN Direct sends information to the watches over the new Microsoft DirectBand network, an FM radio network built up from spectrum Microsoft leased on the networks of broadcasting companies in the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas and the largest Canadian cities, Microsoft said.

The SPOT watches run a scaled-down version of Microsoft's CLR (Common Language Runtime) environment. The devices are equipped with a low-cost, power-efficient chipset that consists of an application chip with an ARM7 processor, ROM and static RAM and a 100MHz radio frequency receiver, Microsoft said.

Batteries in the watches will last between three and five days before needing a recharge. If the batteries run out, the clock function of the watch will still work, according to Microsoft.

Analysts are enthusiastic about SPOT and say it probably won't be a dog, even though similar services have failed in the past. Seiko's MessageWatch, sold in the mid-to-late nineties, is a prime example.

"SPOT by no means is a dog. It is a huge initiative to take ordinary objects and give them a new life," said Doherty of The Envisioneering Group.

The main differences between the MessageWatch and SPOT watches are the network connection and advances in low-power radio receivers that make for more powerful receivers and longer battery life, according to Doherty, himself once a MessageWatch user.

Alex Slawsby, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts, sees potential for SPOT watches, though he does not know if hordes of people will rush to get one.

"Whether or not it makes it beyond early adopters will be dependant on how well the watches are marketed, how diverse the available watches are in terms of meeting price and form factor demands," he said.

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