Monday, December 27, 2004

Techno Musings: SPOT off

I blame Dick Tracy. For years, manufacturers have been trying to cram more than just timekeeping capabilities into the venerable watch. Back in middle school, a classmate had a watch that doubled as a calculator. An appealing thing until you actually tried to use the miniscule keypad on the darn thing.
Then, in 1995, Timex came out with the "Data Link" watch that flashed lines on your monitor to synchronized the watch with their proprietary PIM software on your Windows PC. The original was limited to 70 entries; newer models (yep, Timex is still producing these puppies) store several hundred entries and use USB, but the software is still proprietary.
Fast forward to the height of the PDA phenomenon, and a few daring watchmakers sold models running the Palm OS. The initial models were pretty bulky; even though later models got the size down to something more reasonable, the fact remains that -- for all of these attempts -- the wrist-borne form factor is lousy for input.
So here we are in 2004 and Microsoft comes out with the latest generation of their MSN Direct (née SPOT) technology and watchmakers have hopped on board. The watches themselves look pretty cool, and if you're lucky enough to live in one of the ten cities MS supports and you shell out $40 a year, one of these watches can display information MS broadcasts over a special FM station.
Actually, Microsoft was surprisingly close to getting it the right, but they overshot a bit. After all, this is MY watch. It's probably a few years off, but when we finally see a useful digital wrist whatever, it will be a way for your other digital gear to let you know what's going on. Instead of playing a damn ringtone, you'll be able to set up your cell phone to trigger the watch's vibrating alert and display the caller's ID. Your PDA or laptop can send you reminders about appointments you're about to miss, and your Blackberry or mobile IM device could send you the kind of information that MSN Direct is pushing.
The point is that the watch would be a display device. Sure, it might have the ability to send back a simple response to the originating device such as dismiss or snooze, but the point is that it really wouldn't know much other than something to identify it as yours and to store some basic personal preferences. Other things that this watch will need to be successful:
  • Platform agnostic -- it shouldn't care who made the device that is trying to communicate with you, just that it's conforming to a set of open standards.
  • Secure -- your devices will need some way to ensure that it is your watch they're communicating with and, possibly more importantly, there will need to be some way to prevent spammers from overloading your watch with useless junk.
  • Low power -- whatever wireless method is used to communicate with the watch (Bluetooth, wireless USB), it can't be so power hungry that you need to haul around a car battery to keep your watch running.
  • Easily rechargeable -- I really don't want to have to "dock" my watch every night. There is some promising work being done on "mats" that can recharge any device placed on it without having to have the device plugged into it. Again, an open standard would be needed.

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