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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

History tells us (but only over a quiet candlelit dinner) that the primitive man would often have trouble getting out of the cave early enough for the hunt. Rather than rely on natural stimulants such as daybreak or the consumption of a limb by a predator, he would ask a more reliable cavemate to guide him from slumber. Cave drawings show that the first human to serve this role, named Noodge, pioneered a very effective technique that only distant descendants would appreciate as an advanced application of physics. As far as the silly caveman knew, he was simply being hit in the head with a rock.

Fast-forward a few hundred thousand years to when science brought us the alarm clock. While much more sophisticated than the rock of ancient times, it did not prove significantly more effective at waking consumers at first. The product was nearly deemed a failure until someone took the cord used to sling it at the sleeping party and plugged the device into a wall. Consumers rejoiced in the new freedom from concussions, oblivious that they had set in motion a turn of events that would ultimately lead to the much more painful morning radio "zoo" show.

Since its early days, the alarm clock has seen many changes. It made the transition to digital display. It incorporated the cassette, the CD, and even in some instances, the cordless phone. Many models now offers such functionality as automatic time setting, dual alarms, countdown timers, battery backup and snooze (a real sleeper feature). An alarm clock feature is conveniently built into many cell phones these days. You can't miss it - fourth deck down, eighth menu item.

Alarm clocks have also gone upscale. Bose, Cambridge Soundworks, and other audio brands have recreated the devices as �table radios� that sell for hundreds of dollars. Even The Sharper Image turned a matched set of two clocks into stereo speakers, complete with a matching subwoofer, that play from either side of the bed. It was innovative in an ionic-breezy, sound-soothing kind of way.

Yet, alarm clocks continue to be perceived as the Rodney Dangerfields of consumer electronics. We know this because they are, along with tanning beds, electric toothbrushes, metal detectors and bug zappers, one of only five products that someone is not trying to turn the Mac mini into. A few years ago, a startup named Simple Devices (which of course made no devices at all) designed a product called SimpleClock that could stream music and pertinent morning bits such as weather and traffic from the PC. However, buying one proved not so simple as it was never put into production.

This year, though, at least two companies will heed the wake-up call for the next generation of alarm clocks. Philips will release the PS110, a white miniature boombox that fits in the palm of one�s hand. Rather than use CDs, it has 256 MB of flash memory that can be filled with MP3s from a PC. Unfortunately, there�s no flash memory card slot, but it has an opportunity to bring the travel alarm into the 21st Century.

Valuing service over small size, Oregon Scientific will use Microsoft�s MSN Direct service to expand the high end of its weather station business. Rather than relying on a sensor outside the home, these devices will have the weather and forecasts delivered through wireless data broadcasts. It remains to be seen whether this will incur the subscription fee of SPOT watches or whether a basic level of service can be underwritten, as Ambient Devices has done. It�s a natural extension of automatic time-setting that also relies on wireless data.

Whether it�s beamed from some distant source or from the PC over the home network, though, there is an opportunity to enrich the waking experience. Perhaps if we could be gently alerted to relevant daily details like pertinent news, weather, and to-dos, a fun horoscope or an inspirational quote of the day, we could face the day more easily. There has to even be some offbeat revenue potential here for a branded information source such as Yahoo! But, if not, we can always count on the rock.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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