By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
The commercial launch of a wireless service that beams messages and user-customizable information to wristwatch pagers based on Microsoft's Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) will slip sometime into early next year, Microsoft and watchmaker Fossil told TWICE.
Microsoft, which had targeted a fall 2003 launch, is expanding its current consumer beta test to hundreds of consumers and will launch the subscription service commercially "when it meets consumer expectations," said a Microsoft spokesman. SPOT-technology watches from Fossil and sports-oriented wristwatch computers from Suunto will have a "significant retail presence after the first of the year," he added.
Although the spokesman didn't specify why the rollout is slipping into next year, he did say SPOT "is a complex product that we're bringing to market." The company "made tremendous progress over the past few months," he added.
Microsoft's service, called MSN Direct, will beam customizable information such as news and sports, MSN instant messages, and Microsoft Outlook calendar-appointment reminders to the watches via FM stations' sidebands in more than 100 U.S. metropolitan areas.
Information will be displayed on 120-by-96-pixel LCD displays in a mix of words and graphics that is "glanceable" and quickly absorbed by the subscriber, Microsoft has said. (See TWICE, March 10, p. 30.)
Ease of use will differentiate the service from previous attempts at delivering information wirelessly to watch pagers, the company contends (see Watch List at right). Another differentiating factor is the network's data capacity, enabling a higher level of data-service customization than previous watch-pager services did. Future services could include local rush-hour traffic reports and downloadable applications such as play-by-play baseball-game updates.
Despite the widespread availability of information services to larger handheld one-and two-way pagers and to cellular phones, Microsoft contends that SPOT will succeed because of its unique niche. Whereas cellphones and pagers deliver "more immersive" content, SPOT's goal is to offer glanceable information on everyday objects, including watches, and to improve the core functionality of an existing device, starting with wristwatches.
SPOT watches, for example, will automatically synchronize with the U.S. atomic clock, adjust for time-zone changes, adjust for daylight savings time, and deliver "timely" information, the company said.
In updating Microsoft's progress, the spokesman said Fossil and Suunto have finalized the designs of their first SPOT devices. In all 50 states, he continued, Microsoft has stitched together a network of FM radio stations in the largest 100 metropolitan areas and in select smaller markets to deliver information wirelessly. "The network is built," he said. "We're ready to flip the switch."
The first batch of watches will appear from Fossil and Suunto, followed at an unspecified later date by Citizen watches, he said. Initially, Fossil will offer four models, including a $129 street-priced Abacus model targeted to consumer electronics retailers at margins of 15 to 20 points, said Fossil technology VP Donald Brewer. Fossil will also offer three other models at everyday prices from $179 to $199, including a model bearing the Dick Tracy name. Those models will be sold through Fossils' traditional channels, including department stores and Fossil's own stores. "We will launch in January," he said.
Information services beamed to the watches will cost consumers $9.95/month if they pay monthly, with the first month free. For a year's service in advance, consumers will pay $59.
Suunto markets its products through sporting-goods stores. Information on its product was unavailable.
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