Microsoft's Tick-Tock Crock

The Abacus watch delivers news, weather, and traffic reports, none of them very well. Smart Personal Object Technology's time has yet to come

The year was 2002. The venue was Las Vegas, the site of the second-to-last Comdex trade show ever held. I was in the audience when Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates got the tech world on the edge of its collective seat over something no more complicated than a wristwatch.

The buzz was over something Microsoft calls Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT). On its face, it was conceptually weird. Take an object like a watch, bedside alarm clock -- even a refrigerator magnet, add some computer chips and a wireless data connection, and suddenly it can load bits of information from the Internet and display them in such a way as to be useful at a glance.


What information could be needed so urgently? The obvious candidates -- as usual with new Internet applications -- were weather and stock quotes, as if there weren't already 12.3 trillion ways to look up the weather and the price of your favorite stock.

The first SPOT watches appeared in 2004 to rather mixed acclaim. They were bulky, and while cleverly engineered, of limited use. People are increasingly ditching wrist watches, and instead tell time with Internet-ready wireless phones -- which they can use to track the weather, stock quotes, watch TV shows, and download chart-topping music while they're at it. So there aren't going to be that many people who get all that excited about a geeky wristwatch.

Now Microsoft and its various watch-making partners like Finland's Suunto and Fossil (FOSL) are back with a new generation of watches running the SPOT technology. Compared with the first generation of watches, they've better -- but not by much.


As part of a series of reviews of the latest in wearable technology, I conducted a weeklong test of the $179 Abacus Smart Watch 2006. And while there are certain aspects of the SPOT concept that I like, I still don't find the watch to be terribly useful.

To its credit, the watch is a little smaller than the earlier models -- the first one I tried was huge! The latest unit feels more or less like the Timex watch I typically wear, though I wish it were waterproof.

One feature that I particularly like is that the watch sets itself, and always tells the correct time. It does this thanks to a wireless data connection, which comes courtesy of the many FM subcarrier transmitters that Microsoft acquired some years back. The coverage around the U.S. and Canada is pretty wide -- roughly 125 different cities, but you lose certain features beyond those areas.


Getting information sent to the watch requires an annual subscription to MSN Direct, and that starts at $40 a year. And while I like getting the weather -- the current temperature and a three-day forecast, for instance -- there's nothing there that I can't get from the top right corner of the front page of The New York Times (NYT). I will concede it's fun to be able to know at a glance whether its 80 degrees or 75 degrees outside, and occasionally useful to know what time the sun will go down -- say, when I need to decide whether to fire up the barbecue.

But that is where the usefulness ends. The news feature is just silly. Abridged headlines appear on the watch's face ("US Homeowners See...." And "Muslims Denounce U.S....") And if you want to read more about the story you have to press a button, and then read very tiny text on the screen that follows.

Additionally, every now and then the watch will chirp with the headline and a short summary of a breaking news story. Having tried just about every service under the sun that sends news and alerts to a mobile device, I know a little something about competitive offerings. I can tell you that you'll be far more up to date subscribing to a alert service from Yahoo (YHOO) or CNN (TWX) and having the alerts sent to a Blackberry (RIMM), Treo (PALM), or a wireless phone.


Delivered stock quotes are more or less standard fare: They're hindered by the usual delay, so you wouldn't want to use it for trading purposes, but rather a quick peek when you're not near a more current source.

One feature that does show a little promise is still in the so-called beta testing phase: the traffic feature. This is the time of year when New Yorkers spend a lot of time on the road traveling to homes in the Hamptons or Connecticut. As I write these words, it's raining very heavily in New York City, and the National Weather Service just reported, via e-mail, that the FDR Drive is closed north of 79th Street because of flooding.

The watch has the same information, which would be useful to me when I'm at the wheel. It would be better, however, if I could configure the MSN Direct service to focus on more specific areas, because it sends a lot of traffic information about locations where I never drive. It shows promise, but could use some work. As Gates himself once said, this is why they call it beta.


Overall, I like certain aspects of the watch, I still find the SPOT technology interesting, and will be eager to see where it shows up next. But I can't say Abacus is worth the total purchase price – about $180 for the watch and another $40 a year for service.

With a few exceptions, most of what I can learn from this watch I can get from other sources that are no more or less convenient to use. But many of those alternatives are certainly less costly.
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