Entelligence: Whatever happened to SPOT?

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

A few years ago, Microsoft launched a new initiative to create a set of connected, digital devices that could display information simply and in a highly glanceable format. The initiative was called SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) and the goal was to integrate core information and extend the function of everyday items like watches, pens and badges.

Sadly, the first SPOT watches from companies like Fossil and Suunto never really caught on and are no longer available, and although SPOT's core connection technology still lives in some GPS devices as MSN Direct, it seems Microsoft has largely abandoned the effort. That's a shame: even though the first implementations were less than stellar, there's much Microsoft could have done to have ultimately made this a success.

In order to understand SPOT, it's important to note where it fits in to the consumer device form factor taxonomy. Unlike devices that go into your laptop bag or even your pocket, SPOT broke new ground and transcended into the "invisible" space, where items like wallets and keys reside. The invisible space is one of the most critical areas for vendors to target, since there's a gigantic market for devices that are ubiquitous, critical and free up room for you to carry something else. While some cell phones might be considered part of the invisible space, SPOT was one of the first digital devices that made the leap by design.

The SPOT watch had every regular watch feature you might have wanted -- alarms, timers, chronographs -- but it was also a "smart watch": an integrated radio allowed the watch to receive information over the FM band. After you configured your feeds online, SPOT automatically updated to display local weather, news headlines, stock information (with trends and graphs), MSN instant messages, movie times, sports scores and other data. Users could send messages directly to your watch, Outlook would sync your calendar so SPOT could automatically remind you of appointments ahead, and there no need to re-set SPOT for daylight savings time or when traveling to a new city, since the watch picked up the local times automatically. SPOT also had some very cool custom watch faces, which ranged from the whimsical to the cute to the downright cool. In short, Microsoft took the concept of watch and turned it into watch plus. Does it work? Yes. Did it succeed? No. Here's why.

First, the watch needed to be re-charged. Consumers are used to measuring watch runtimes in years, not days, and although my informal tests showed I could travel for few days with the watch before I needed plug in, I suspect that put a lot of users off. Second, in order to cover the data fees associated with the watch, there was a subscription fee of $59 a year to gain access to features above timekeeping. This was not an outrageous sum, but Microsoft was never quite able to market SPOT to consumers in a way that explained the cost-benefit ratio. Finally, watches are more than just telling time -- they're status symbols and devices that serve to identify. If that's all users wanted to do, everyone would wear a $19.00 Timex that keeps better time than a $5,000 Rolex. Even with partners like Swatch, Microsoft's focus on utilitarian functions over the other reasons that people buy watches ultimately led to failure in the marketplace.

Overall, SPOT was an amazing concept that demonstrated software's ability to transform already useful objects into devices that alter our everyday lives. There was clearly a lot of thought put into SPOT's functional design, but sadly Microsoft missed the forest for the trees. It would be great for Microsoft to re-think its overall design goals and re-integrate SPOT's design philosophy back into other products, like Windows Mobile. (Microsoft had actually created beta prototype of SPOT functionality running under Windows Mobile, but I haven't heard much about it in a very long time). The invisible space is a key attribute of mobile computing and it's a shame to let such valuable property go undeveloped. It's time for someone to recapture what was good about the SPOT philosophy and bring back the power of the glanceable and the invisible.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at, and he can be emailed at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.