Wednesday

Wednesday 8/1/2003Microsoft's taken the opportunity at CES to announce SPOT -- what is it with that company and dogs? SPOT, Smart Personal Object Technology, is Microsoft's R&D effort to put intelligence into small things.

Wednesday 8/1/2003
Microsoft's taken the opportunity at CES to announce SPOT -- what is it with that company and dogs? SPOT, Smart Personal Object Technology, is Microsoft's R&D effort to put intelligence into small things. Such as the gizmo that Bill Gates described as pure company innovation, a wristwatch that picks up data from the air and displays it from time to time. Well, if you ignore the Seiko Messagewatch from the 90s and the Timex Beepwear, the various wrist-mounted computers and PDAs that have popped up from time to time over the past decade and Dick Tracey, then yes, it's another stunning invention from Microsoft that nobody thought of first. How do they do it? Less sarcastically, this is the first airing for Microsoft's tiny operating system that runs in real time on an ARM with a light dusting of support chips. This too stands alone -- apart from the hundreds of other ARM tiny real-time kernels -- but it's about time MS had something other than the ridiculously bloated CE to show that they can still write nifty software. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the watch is the radio technology used to relay information to it -- it's something called DirectBand, which is a way of subtly modulating FM broadcast signals to carry small amounts of data. The details aren't clear yet, but it'll be unlikely to work over in Europe where there are already various data services using much the same technology. Microsoft has in the past suggested doing something similar with TV signals, seemingly unaware that most of the world was already using the same idea for some obscure service called Teletext. At some point, a US wireless initiative will show at least some recognition that there's a world beyond the borders, but this isn't it. There is a long industry tradition of digital watches: Intel, Sinclair, Texas Instruments, Commodore, even HP have chanced their -- and your -- arms in the past with a variety of wrist-born gizmos. Almost to a fault these proved less than acceptable, with (you'll be amazed to hear) the Sinclair Black Watch being particularly risible. It's not at all clear that it ever worked properly, while the Intel watch at least managed some success despite a habit of running backwards if you walked over a nylon carpet. In general, it seems safe to say that once a high-tech company produces a digital watch, it's time to splash out on the clockwork alternative.