A Smart Watch With Some Lessons To Learn

It felt like I had a golf ball on my wrist, but the younger set might like it

Microsoft may be the only company in the world that could have brought the MSN Direct Smart Watch to market. Having $50 billion in the bank is handy if you want to take a slightly goofy research project -- a wristwatch that receives news and instant messages and displays your calendar -- and turn it into a mass-market item in less than a year. Last January, Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III demonstrated a prototype of a data watch, then called Smart Personal Object Technology. Microsoft Research, working with a tiny radio and processor developed by National Semiconductor, had found a way to make devices as small as watches act as one-way pagers, receiving data over part of the FM signal not used by radio stations.

Microsoft quickly established a product group, lined up Fossil and Finland's Suunto as watchmaking and marketing partners, and leased spectrum from FM stations to provide coverage in most metropolitan areas. But it's far from clear to me whether this is a product for which there is a real market or a technology Microsoft pursued just because it could.

THE FIRST SMART WATCHES should be in stores in January. Fossil has a version for $179 and a second bearing its Abacus brand for $129. Suunto, which makes high-end sports instruments such as dive computers, will offer a $299 Smart Watch. Buyers also need an MSN Direct subscription: $9.95 a month with 30 days free, or $59 for a year.

I'm certainly well out of Smart Watch's target demographic of teens and twentysomethings. My personal taste in timepieces runs to the thin, elegant products of Geneva watchmakers. So it's not surprising that I found wearing the Fossil Wrist Net watch -- which is 1 1/4 inches long, 1 1/2-in. wide, and nearly a 1/2-in. thick -- a bit like having a golf ball strapped to my wrist. But big watches are fashionable among the younger buyers who have made Fossil hot.

The idea of a watch communicator has been around at least since the Dick Tracy comic strip's wrist radio in the 1940s. But even in an age of microelectronics that Tracy creator Chester Gould could never have dreamed of, the design and size of watches imposes some formidable challenges. The Smart Watch is controlled by five buttons. Those on the left follow the functions of most electronic watches. The lower button flips through the watch's "channels," such as time, choice of watch face, weather, news, and messages. The button on the upper left turns on a backlight. And the center button on the right accepts the current selection, sort of like an "enter" key. Buttons on the right top and bottom move forward and backward through the items within a category, such as messages, stocks, and news stories. This all works well enough, but I found manipulating the buttons clumsy. A bigger drawback is the watch's need to be recharged every three days or so -- so a trip lasting more than a weekend will require taking a bulky charger along. I'm not sure a dozen 25-word news items and a handful of stock quotes is worth the tradeoff.

The feature that makes the most sense to me is the ability to see my Outlook calendar -- appointments and watches are a natural mix. The calendar sync, along with other choices, such as selecting stock quotes and choosing your home city for news and weather, is accomplished through the MSN Direct Web site. If you have Outlook set to give you alarms before meetings, the Smart Watch will give you the same alerts.

The history of multifunction watches is not a happy one. In the late 1990s, Timex' Data Link watch synced contact and calendar information but had little success beyond the Microsoft campus. More than a year ago, Fossil announced a Palm watch that is still six months away from release. Microsoft's money can get the Smart Watch to market, but its fate is up to the vagaries of youthful taste.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom, Techandyou@businessweek.com

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