Will Microsoft's Smartwatch Be Smart Enough?

Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. shows new smart personal object technology (SPOT) devices including computerized refrigerator magnets and time pieces in 2002 at COMDEX Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images

All the cool kids are making smartwatches, which means that Microsoft wants to make one, too. The word on the street is that Microsoft’s take on the smartwatch will arrive in October. It won’t be a chunker like Google’s Android Wear units. Microsoft has opted to make a thinner device that focuses on health-tracking functions, comes with a software interface for developers to tap, and has 11 sensors—presumably because including 12 would be gauche. These tidbits come from Tom’s Hardware, which apparently has a watch mole; Microsoft has declined to confirm or deny the details.

Microsoft’s smartwatch sounds nice enough, but what the company could really use is something spectacular, if for no other reason than to maintain its collective sanity.

Let’s ever-so-painfully travel back to 2002, when Bill Gates unveiled Microsoft’s Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) at the Comdex tradeshow in Las Vegas. I witnessed Gates trying to wow the Comdex crowd with fancy alarm clocks, keychains, refrigerator magnets, and, yes, smartwatches. These devices would do such amazing things as connect to a wireless network and then tell people about traffic conditions, the weather, and their stock portfolios. (Every technology demo at that time centered on those three tasks.) By 2004, the Microsoft SPOT watches were on the market, but no one wanted to buy them. By 2008, they were gone.

The SPOT tale is just another reminder that Microsoft has a real knack for predicting where technology will go, but it couples this skill with horrible timing and woeful execution. It was in 2002, after all, that Microsoft also showed off its takes on smartphones and tablet computers. The company was about six years ahead of the competition with these devices, and they were too big, too expensive, and generally underwhelming. Microsoft has been dazzling people with its smart home and virtual assistant demos for just as long, without turning these visions into products.

When it comes to smartwatches, Microsoft has again mistimed things. It trails Google, Samsung, and the rest of the Android crowd to market. It looks as if its device will arrive just as Apple and Asus start hawking their wares. Part of me hopes Microsoft will rise to the challenge this time and deliver something truly distinctive. Besides supporting new Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella, this would be a way for Microsoft to make use of its skills as a visionary enterprise, instead of fumbling one more category of devices to its rivals’ grasp.

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