News, weather and traffic _ on your watch
Thursday, April 24th 2003, 12:00 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Microsoft Corp. is using a twist on some old technology _ FM radio waves _ to deliver instant messages, headlines and traffic updates to a new generation of gadgets that will fit on your wrist or keychain.
The software company has big spending plans for its latest family of products, expected to go on sale in months, and some technology experts who have seen early prototypes are impressed. But Microsoft enters a wireless market crowded with pagers, handheld computers and cellular phones, and it still is signing contracts with companies that will provide information for the devices.
Microsoft envisions consumers using tiny liquid crystal display (LCD) screens on a high-tech watch, for example, to check for continually updated information at a glance, such as stock prices, weather forecasts or traffic tips ``delivered in such a way that you only access the information when you care about it,'' said Chris Schneider, a Microsoft product manager.
Future versions of these devices _ the company is still figuring out exactly how consumers might use them _ might include keychains, alarm clocks or refrigerator magnets. The gadgetry, operating behind the scenes on Microsoft's ambitious .NET (pronounced dot-net) computer server technology, fits squarely into Chairman Bill Gates' mantra _ ``information at your fingertips.''
``They could be all over the map,'' said Tim Bajarin, president of analyst firm Creative Strategies Inc. ``As individuals, when it comes to our digital lifestyle issues, there's no question that information at the time you need it is really important.''
Using FM radio spectrum leased from some of the largest broadcasters, the gadgets could receive sports scores, local dining suggestions, horoscopes, theater listings or even terrorism alerts. Microsoft, which announced the devices this year, promises that watches from partners such as Fossil Inc. and Suunto Inc. could continually synchronize with super-accurate clocks operated by the U.S. Naval Observatory.
``It's one of those technologies that could quickly become something you couldn't live without,'' said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. ``It could become one of those things _ once it saved you a couple times _ that's hard to leave behind.''
But Microsoft faces an uphill battle among some consumers, already drowning in an array of handhelds and cellular phones that can receive personalized information. Mike Nelson, a corporate jet pilot who commutes about 20 miles from his home in Woodbridge, Va., to Reagan National Airport, finds that traditional traffic updates on FM radio stations are adequate for him _ and they are free.
Nelson carries a cellular phone and recently gave up a two-way pager with e-mail; his wife, Nikki, and others who wanted to send him messages preferred to call his phone.
``Almost everyone has a cell phone,'' he said. ``If they're coming up with a new way of delivering content, why not just do it over the cell phone? Everybody hates carrying anything more than a phone.''
Will Carson, an employee at the U.S. Mint in Washington, said he already receives headlines and other news alerts via his pager.
``For me, it wouldn't be very useful,'' Carson said. ``Depending on how quickly that information could get to you _ if it was fast and convenient _ I could see somebody using it.''
By the time devices go on sale in the fall, Schneider said, Microsoft expects to be able to transmit to the new gadgets in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Experts expect Microsoft to charge $8 or $10 per month for about 100 messages, plus the cost of the devices. Watches, which would need to be recharged about every three days, would cost $150 and up but other devices could be far cheaper.
``It's not terribly expensive to put the technology into the devices,'' said product manager Schneider. Microsoft's research unit, which began work on the devices and underlying technology three years ago, teamed with National Semiconductor Corp. to develop the low-power, low-cost chips required.
Analyst Enderle said the devices can be manufactured so cheaply that he imagines amusement parks eventually giving them away with the price of admission; those devices could keep track of lines at thrill rides, special offers at restaurants or even the time that a children's character might appear for autographs.
``It's inexpensive enough that it could be a technology that's widely adoptable and subsidized,'' Enderle said.