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Microsoft to make its mark with Spot information broadcast service

Microsoft has revealed details of a service to transmit information over FM radio to watches equipped with its Smart Personal Objects Technology (Spot).

Called MSN Direct, the service will cost $9.95 per month or $59 a year when it becomes available in the US and Canada later this year. Spot watch buyers will be able to select from a menu of information, including news, stock quotes, weather, traffic and restaurant guides.

Users will also be able to receive messages via MSN Messenger and appointment reminders from Microsoft Outlook. The service will be largely text-based, with some icons for items like weather reports.

"This is not for reading the newspaper, but for the micro moments in people's lives, providing perhaps a paragraph of information," said Chris Schneider, program manager at Microsoft's Spot technology group.

One analyst saw MSN Direct's pricing as very attractive. "There are very few consumer plans that cost under $10 a month," said Richard Doherty, research director at market researcher the Envisioneering Group.  "We think there will be spot shortages of the Spot products before the end of the year."

Microsoft first announced Spot at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last year, and in January this year Bill Gates, the company's chairman and chief software architect, announced Spot partnerships with watchmakers Fossil, Suunto Oy and Citizen.

Between six and eight watch styles priced between $150 and $300 will be available from the watch companies before Christmas.

Customers will be able to buy a watch at a retailer, then set up the MSN Direct service by registering the watch, picking a price plan and selecting the content services at a website set up for the purpose.

Schneider claimed the market for the product is "limitless", although Microsoft expected initial users to be internet-savvy consumers. The average American has three or more watches, he added.

MSN Direct sends information to the watches over the Microsoft DirectBand network, an FM radio network built up from spectrum Microsoft leased on the networks of broadcasting companies in the top 100 US metropolitan areas and the largest Canadian cities.

The Spot watches run a scaled-down version of Microsoft's Common Language Runtime environment, and are equipped with a low-cost, power-efficient chipset that consists of an application chip with an ARM7 processor, Rom and static Ram, and a 100MHz radio frequency receiver.

Batteries in the watches will last between three and five days before needing a recharge. If the batteries run out, the clock function of the watch will still work.

Analysts are enthusiastic about Spot, even though similar services have failed in the past. Seiko's MessageWatch, sold in the mid-to-late 1990s, is a prime example.

"Spot by no means is a dog. It is a huge initiative to take ordinary objects and give them a new life," said Doherty.

The main differences between the MessageWatch and Spot watches are the network connection and advances in low-power radio receivers that make for more powerful receivers and longer battery life, according to Doherty, himself once a MessageWatch user.

IDC analyst Alex Slawsby also saw potential for Spot watches. "Whether or not it makes it beyond early adopters it will depend on how well the watches are marketed, how diverse the available watches are in terms of meeting price and form factor demands," he said.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service


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