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A quick look back at Microsoft's proto-smartwatch technology, SPOT

microsoft spot

Earlier this week, Samsung announced a ton of products at their latest Unpacked event. Two of them were the Galaxy Watch 6 and Galaxy Watch 6 smartwatches. They are packed with tons of hardware and software features and are just the latest in a long line of smartwatches from the company.

Smartwatches, at least the ones we are familiar with now, are still a fairly recent type of product and only came into prominence in the last decade or so. However, well before those devices were released, and even before the rise of smartphones, Microsoft tried to launch the technology behind a series of smartwatches (and later, other smart devices) that actually were a bit ahead of its time.

The technology was called Microsoft SPOT, which stood for Smart Personal Objects Technology. Microsoft first announced SPOT in January 2003 at the CES trade show in Las Vegas. The company developed the tech as a way to transmit information to specially-made wristwatches. Here's how Microsoft described the tech:

Microsoft’s DirectBand is a set of innovative technologies enabling transmission of Web-based information to smart objects. DirectBand includes a custom radio receiver, a wide area network based on FM subcarrier technology and new radio protocols created to meet the unique communication requirements of smart objects.

Yes, this technology used old-fashioned FM radio signals to transmit its info. While it could be used for many devices, Microsoft decided to concentrate on wristwatches as the first way SPOT could be used.

It worked with National Semiconductor to create a chip that would be inside SPOT watches. The company said.

This chipset consists of an application chip with an ARM7 CPU, ROM and SRAM, and a tiny, sensitive 100MHz RF receiver chip.

fossil spotwatch

Microsoft launched its MSN Direct online service to send info to these SPOT devices. For $60 a year, you could get personalized news, weather, stock reports, sports scores, messages from MSN Messenger, Outlook calendar updates, and more.

At CES 2003, Microsoft announced that Citizen, Fossil, and Suunto would launch wristwatches with the SPOT technology. The plan was to put them on sale in the fall of 2003 for the holiday shopping season. However, delays kept the first SPOT watches from going on sale until early 2004.

Other watch companies also joined the SPOT party, in particular Swatch, which at the time was an extremely popular brand with teens and young adults.

spot coffee maker

The technology even branched out into other devices. The oddest one was a coffee maker from Melitta, which connect to MSN Direct to show you a graphic that gave you the current weather forecast on a small screen. We are still not sure what marketing genius came up with this one.

However, the SPOT watches were never a big seller. One problem was that they were bulky and didn't look as slick as many other higher-end watches at the time. That $60 annual fee to get the connected features was a big issue for many people.

Another big problem was that you couldn't transfer any data from your SPOT watch to other devices. The DirectBand service was also limited to "more than 100 of the largest population centers in North America", according to Microsoft, and it never expanded to other countries.

However, the biggest problem was that, in just a few years, the smartphone revolution was going to start. With the launch of Apple's iPhone, followed by similar devices from other companies, anyone could get more info from them for the price of a mobile cellular connection.

By 2008, SPOT devices had stopped being made, and the MSN Direct service shut down at the end of 2011. The truth is Microsoft SPOT had some good ideas, but the implementation of those ideas and its technology got quickly superseded by the rise of the smartphone.

It might be interesting to see if Microsoft could create a true smartwatch that could rival those from Samsung, Apple, Google, and others.

We would be remiss if we didn't show you this extended commercial for MSN Direct and Microsoft's SPOT tech that "helped" to launch the service in 2004.

We won't say anything more other than it has Spike Lee in it for some reason. Be prepared to cringe a lot. Again, who were the marketing folks that came up with this one?

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