Spotting Technology

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I love trying out new technologies. They don’t always work perfectly the first time out and sometimes a cool vision hasn’t successfully translated itself into a useful product the first time out. The SPOT watch technology from Microsoft is one of those areas with unrealized potential in a form factor I’m not quite ready to adopt. SPOT was originally conceived as an idea of receiving information in to a wrist watch via FM transmissions and is more recently expanding this concept into reception of the same information to a desk clock. Things like weather updates, horoscopes, sports scores, calendar reminders and IM messages are all sent through an online profile created at MSN to your respective watch. On the surface this has the potential to be very cool.

I’ve had a Suunto N3 SPOT watch for several weeks now. It came with a 3 month free trial of the MSN Direct service, which is required to access the update features. Under normal conditions, getting the basic service, which includes stock updates, weather, sports, horoscopes, downloadable watch faces, news, lottery numbers and quote-of-the-day type daily diversions require a $40 annual investment. For an additional $20, you can add the Outlook calendar sync and one-way IM updates. $5 per month for the complete package isn’t a huge deal if you’ve got disposable income, but the current feature set doesn’t deliver anything I can’t easily get somewhere else. I like the at-a-glance convenience of being able to see the temperature and the horoscope and news content has a gimmicky appeal, however, the form factor seems a little redundant.

I own a Smartphone specifically because I want access to information beyond the basic ability to place and receive calls. The color interface on the phone is easier to read than the monochrome watch face, not to mention I get all the access to any Web accessible information as part of my phone plan. While not everyone has or wants a Smartphone, many phones are now providing some or all of these features through text messaging tie-ins and limited browser functionality. SPOT keeps it simple and provides an easy to navigate interface, but it doesn’t do anything I couldn’t get from my phone.

I suppose it’s unfair to compare a watch to a phone because one is intended to be a time piece with some information add-ons and the other is a communication device with some information add-ons, but the basic premise in both cases is keeping a person better informed. If Microsoft wants SPOT technology to have any kind of longer term viability, they need to rethink where the SPOT technology goes. I already carry a phone designed to provide me with more information than I would have access to if I didn’t carry that phone. Why not tie the SPOT features to my phone instead of trying to tie them to a watch. SPOT does do a better job at making the information accessible in an uncluttered way, which it could potentially do on a phone device as well.

I realize not everyone carries a cell phone. Those that do are easily replacing the primary function of a watch (telling time) because most cell phones display network time from the carrier, automatically updating to the local time zone and shifting with the hourly adjustments in spring and fall. SPOT adds this functionality to a watch if you need it, but watches are primarily fashion accessories these days and none of the SPOT designs meet anyone but the calculator watch wearing geek’s idea of fashion. Robin determined the N3 is far too big for me to wear on a regular basis after seeing me wear it a few times. The N3 is svelte compared to the Palm OS watch I once owned, which appeared to be modeled after a parolee tracking bracelet.

If Microsoft plans to turn SPOT into something more than a brief blip on the technology map, they need to seriously rethink where it might be useful and what information it should deliver. Adding data like GPS and altitude, which don’t necessarily require the FM transmitter would have geek appeal. A reminder system aimed at people who are dieting or need to eat on a strict schedule might be an appealing feature that would be useful to receive at regular increments. Ultimately, the mechanism for information delivery, the watch, needs to be eliminated from the equation. Integrate with a portable music player or two – many already receive FM signals. Make it easier for me to get the SPOT information by delivering it to my cell phone. Unless you can put SPOT in a high end watch, the form factor doesn’t make sense.