Microsoft SPOT watches to see light in January

Microsoft will use January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to announce wrist watches and wireless services based on its Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), a Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.

The software maker also plans to launch MSN Premium and MSN Plus at the show, which are updates to its MSN Internet Software for broadband Internet users, and is expected to outline planned improvements to the Media Center Edition of Windows XP.

SPOT uses a portion of the FM broadcast radio networks to deliver snippets of information about weather, news, stock prices and sports scores to wrist watches equipped with the technology.

It was first announced at CES in January 2003, and SPOT watches were originally supposed to go on sale from Fossil and other watchmakers in time for the holiday shopping season. Last minute tweaks to a radio chip in the watches delayed their introduction, according to a source familiar with the effort.

The problem has now been fixed and Fossil has manufactured ''many thousands'' of SPOT watches that hit US stores next month, the source said. Microsoft's MSN Direct Service, which will deliver information to the watches, will also be available at that time. Plans are priced at US$9.95 per month or $59 per year while watches start at US$129, Microsoft has said.

The service will be available initially only in U.S. metropolitan areas and parts of southern Canada, but testing has already begun in Europe, the source said.

''Europe presents some interesting challenges. In Italy, for example, radio broadcasting is like the Wild West, it's almost unregulated. You get stations jammed on top of each other,'' the source said. Still, the service should be available in Europe ''very soon'' the source said.

Whether anyone besides computer geeks will embrace the technology remains to be seen. Past attempts at Dick Tracy-type watches, such as Seiko's MessageWatch, which sold in the mid-to-late nineties, have floundered. Microsoft is betting that consumers are more ready nowadays to embrace such devices, and that technologies have evolved sufficiently to make them attractive.

CES will also be the launchpad for Microsoft's MSN Premium software for broadband Internet users, which offers firewall, antispam, antivirus and enhanced e-mail and instant messaging options. It will be priced on a subscription basis at $9.95 per month, Microsoft officials said.

MSN Premium is meant for the multi-user broadband household with features such as parental controls and multiple e-mail accounts. Microsoft will also introduce a dressed-down version called MSN Plus that will be targeted at the single-user broadband customer. Pricing for MSN Plus will be between $4 and $6 a month, Microsoft has said.

The MSN products succeed MSN 8 Internet Software sold today and will be the first to be offered worldwide by Microsoft, a spokeswoman said. However, at CES Microsoft will only launch English language versions targeted at the U.S. market, she said.

Furthermore, Microsoft at the show will also talk about an incremental update to its Windows XP Media Center Edition that is expected out later this year and show off Windows Automotive products for in-car entertainment and navigation. The company is also expected to talk about enhancements it is making to its Tablet PC software.

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James Niccolai

IDG News Service
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