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Microsoft Made a Pretty Good Smartwatch, Back in 2004


Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates displaying his Fossil SPOT watch in 2003

Photograph by Joe Cavaretta/AP Photo

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates displaying his Fossil SPOT watch in 2003

With the expected introduction of its Galaxy Gear smartwatch on Wednesday, Samsung (005930:KS) will be one of the biggest names yet to jump into this market. Save for Microsoft (MSFT), that is. I know because I bought a Microsoft smartwatch nearly a decade ago. Talk about irony: Microsoft was ahead of its time in the smartwatch game.

Before Samsung’s product is official, now might be a good time to travel back to 2004 to see the beginnings of the modern smartwatch because in some ways, Microsoft had the right idea, as evidenced by modern takes on the concept.

I remember my excitement when Microsoft announced SPOT, or Smart Personal Object Technology. The idea was to provide useful bits of information to devices over FM waves for a $39 to $59 yearly subscription fee, depending on options. Coffee makers, weather stations, and alarm clocks were shown off with small SPOT screens, but the poster child was a series of watches with the technology built-in. Fossil, Suunto, and Tissot all offered these smartwatches. and I bought a Fossil Abacus model for around $150.

I paid the full $59 subscription fee, which included Outlook e-mail synchronization, as well. The watch recharged without needing wires connected. Just like today’s wireless charging pads, an inductive charger was built into a stand for the watch. Plug in the stand, and place the watch on it to charge. Sound familiar?

So what could you do with a SPOT watch and its monochrome screen? You had your choice of various watch faces, which you could change as often as you liked. Thanks to the FM radio inside, you could get up to 12 different channels of information from MSN Direct: Think sports, news, weather, stock tickers and such.

Friends on MSN Messenger could shoot a message to your smartwatch—but you couldn’t reply: There was no way to broadcast information from the watch.

I recall some hacker-like—and I mean that in a good way—development efforts to extend the functionality of the SPOT watch so that messages could be forwarded from other services outside of Microsoft, for example. The small but passionate community was almost a precursor to the Android developer movement today, at least in spirit.

Since FM radio was the key connection, there was neither Wi-Fi nor Bluetooth. To that end, a Microsoft SPOT watch was less a second screen for a smartphone (or a PDA back then) and more a stand-alone device. That interests me because, after 10 years, it seems as if the market is still sorting out which of those it expects a smartwatch to be.

Ultimately, the watch suffered from bad timing. Microsoft relied upon one-way FM radio for data just at the time cellular broadband was getting off the ground. Once that happened, few wanted a watch that could receive only very limited data through 12 MSN Direct channels.

In 2008, Microsoft killed its support for the platform. At some point, I lost track of my SPOT watch. It’s probably buried in a the back of my gadget closet—still able to keep time, but otherwise useless because MSN Direct service is no more.

Still, you can see much of what Microsoft got right when you examine some of the more popular current watches.

Take the Pebble, for example. It uses a low-power, monochrome display, which helps save battery life. The watch functionality has been extended though officially supported channels: Pebble has an SDK for developers to use in the creation of smartwatch apps.

Of course, with nearly 10 years comes hardware advances. Pebble, like many other currently available smartwatches, connects to a smartphone via a Bluetooth connection. This lifeline wasn’t available for SPOT watches. It provides a two-way communication method that can send data to the wider world and access nearly limitless information sources, thanks to the Internet. Add other radios such as GPS and Wi-Fi, as well as accelerometers and other sensors, and you have a more sophisticated timepiece.

Pebble surely isn’t the only example in what’s quickly becoming a crowded market advancing Microsoft’s original vision. I reviewed the MetaWatch back in 2011, which was broken away from Fossil that year, and I looked at the InPulse, the HOT watch, the WIMM (now owned by Google (GOOG)), and one of Sony’s Android powered smartwatches.

I’ll likely take Samsung’s Galaxy Gear for a spin as well. To this day, I still run with a Motorola MotoACTV smartwatch, which triples as a smartphone notification screen, stand-alone exercise tracker, and wireless MP3 player.

Look closely, though, and all have roots in Microsoft’s original vision.

It’s possible that Microsoft will return to this market, especially after having acquired Nokia’s (NOK) devices and services division on Monday for $7.17 billion, but its far more likely that Apple (AAPL) and Google will do so first. I think these companies have the best chance of truly disrupting the wearables sector because they’re both positioned to change the definition of a smartwatch.

Apple’s forte is in mobile apps, thanks to its strong developer base and tool set. It also has a wide reach for providing those apps. If any company is going to crack the useful apps on the wrist market, my money is on Apple. But I’m personally not sure I want apps on my watch. I have enough devices that run apps: a smartphone, tablet, and laptop. Apple also redefined the smartphone market through the iOS breakthroughs in mobile user interfaces—a crucial element for a truly mainstream smartwatch.

Google has improved its own mobile UI and it has something else unique to offer: more user information than perhaps any other company. That’s why I’ve suggested Google can change the smartwatch market by building a watch around Google Now and various sensors.

Google Now is certainly useful on a smartphone or tablet, but the value increases by a magnitude on a wearable such as Google Glass or a potential smartwatch, perhaps built on WIMM’s efforts. Combining the context of where you are with when you’re there is a superb concept that could work wonders on a smartwatch—one I’ll make space for on my wrist, if Google chooses to build it.

No matter what company becomes a leader in this space—Samsung, Google, Apple, or an upstart such as Pebble—they can all trace back to SPOT. As with the Tablet PC from 2001, this Microsoft idea was in the right place at the wrong time.

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Tofel is a writer for the GigaOm Network.

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