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Switched On: Sweet dash eats cash, meets crash

Barb Dybwad
Barb Dybwad|April 20, 2005 6:55 PM
Ambient Dashboard
Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

The last Switched On discussed the Ambient Dashboard hardware and operation. This column further discusses its subscriptions, web configuration, and implications of its wireless delivery system.

At CES, Ambient downplayed the necessity of a subscription for its Dashboard, but most of its FaceCards require recurring charges — $6.95 per month or $19.95 per quarter for three channels. That comes out to more than the annual charge Microsoft offers as a subscription for its MSN Direct watches that also use FM subcarrier radio technology. Users can upgrade or downgrade at will without penalty.

The premium FaceCards, so marked with an icon in their left corner, turn the product from a toy to a tool, exposing its potential far beyond weather and even the surf conditions that have been monitored since the days of the the Seiko MessageWatch, the forerunner of the SPOT watch. Creative FaceCard ideas range from counting down the minutes to your next meeting to the showing the number of new job listings posted (although, if you are anxiously monitoring the latter, you might have better use for your diminished cash flow.).

Others cards provide status on the percentage of a credit limit used, progress toward frequent flier mile goals, an allergy index, or traffic on a particular route. The latter seems like a particularly useful gauge when running out in the morning. Ambient is also encouraging third-party development of FaceCards and its Web site should in time offer third-party channels.

Premium channels are added, deleted and configured through MyAmbient.com, which is unquestionably the product?s weakest link today. There are broken graphics, flaky buttons, and a test to downgrade a subscription yielded a Web site crash with a server error and a page full of HTTP error code. Of the 34 premium channels listed, many of which did not yet have matching FaceCards, fewer than half were active. The ?Buddy Status? channel, which allows users to designate whether one person is logged in and actively using AOL Instant Messenger, was active but did not work. In recognition of the mess, Ambient is offering three free months of premium service to early buyers. Ambient Devices also offers configuration by phone for the Web-averse.

Even assuming that Ambient can ramp up its Web site, though, users must have faith that the company will be able to continue offering service to the device even for its basic channels. The Dashboard offers great functionality, and its reliance on a separate wireless network may make it a better fit for users in companies that secure their Wi-Fi networks.

However, given that getting even a fraction of its value requires at least one-time Internet access, it would be great to see a version that routed data through the PC in the home wireless network and didn?t seek to pile on to the mounting subscription fees for which consumers are continuously solicited. Perhaps Wireless USB will yield such devices. Until then, the Dashboard is another example of a cumbersome business plan saddling an emerging device category.