Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Watch maker Fossil was among the first companies to support MSN Direct, the smart objects technology first offered by Microsoft in a number of timepieces. Earlier this year, the company, through its Abacus brand, revisited the technology in its Abacus Smart Watch 2006.
While the watch is still on the bulky side, it's slimmed down a bit and Fossil has used a sloping profile to minimize the watch's girth. In fact, the Abacus 2006 was no thicker than a workaday Seiko men's watch I purchased last year. Other improvements include more memory and the inclusion of a year of MSN Direct service. Abacus offers the watch with a metal band that nicely complements the watch's masculine design for $179, as well as a number of leather straps. Unlike nearly any other consumer product that includes Microsoft software, it has nary a trace of Microsoft branding.
Like all of the MSN Direct watches, the 2006 Abacus uses FM radio technology to communicate updates to the device. After activating the timepiece, you choose content channels from a Microsoft Web site. The content has diversified considerably from when the watch was first launched, but it's still mostly focused on the basics, including a variety of different "faces" -- two of which I found attractive, three more of which were acceptable, and several of which were just hideous.
Other choices range from breaking news and sports to lightweight infotainment such as horoscopes, "this day in history" and "word of the day." A promising feature now in beta is traffic updates; Microsoft is still building out info for the major metropolitan areas and routes. This information could itself be worth the price of a "smart plan" subscription alone at $39 per year.
One foible that has plagued smart watches from Microsoft and others has been short battery life; the standard here should be consistent with those of modern cell phones and the Abacus 2006 reached it, running for nearly four days without needing a charge. Fossil has also cleaned up the charging process. The watch can be charged via a USB port, but requires a proprietary cable that magnetically attaches to the underside of the watch
That battery life included regular usage of features besides time. After a brief period of adjusting to having some weight on my wrist after a long absence, I remembered how convenient it was not to have to drag my phone out of its holster simply to check the time. I've previously chided the idea of MSN Direct, noting that most competent feature phones can do everything that a smart watch can, but the usage model is different.
In any case, an even broader and, more importantly, more personalized content selection would greatly benefit the service. RSS would seem to be a likely candidate, but MSN Direct missives are edited to their core, usually just a headline and a supporting sentence. Even a typically brief blog post would overwhelm the interface. There have been hacks involving MSN Messenger to relay feeds, but a more mainstream offering -- perhaps a partnership with a feed aggregation service, would greatly enhance personalization.
Personalization is more important to smart watches than more choices per se. While operating the Abacus 2006 is straightforward, it can take a number of button presses to get to the content you want. The more services that you've downloaded to the watch -- and the Abacus 2006 can accommodate practically everything that MSN Direct can throw at it -- the more time you spend dancing around instead of glancing at its interface.
The Abacus 2006 is a significant advance over the first generation of MSN Direct watches. It won't change your life, but it certainly makes your hands more handy.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.