See SPOT run

At the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last month, Microsoft Corp. introduced SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology). SPOT uses FM subcarrier technology for what Microsoft calls a one-way Direct Band Network, which will create "smart objects." Onstage, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates displayed a variety of watches that can do everything from setting themselves to receiving weather alerts, stock prices, and calendar updates.

At first blush, most attendees during and after the keynote, and analysts in the press room, were shaking their heads, not up and down but from side to side. Comments ranged from "One-way paging went away a long time ago" to the less thoughtful "SPOT is a dog."

In a subsequent interview with Bill Mitchell, the founder and general manager of Microsoft's SPOT initiative, I was able to get a better feel for what the company has in mind. The result of that interview makes me less certain that SPOT is a dog.

Mitchell told me that the point of SPOT is at the least two-fold: One point is to take elements of our digital world, up until now relegated to computing, and "put them in more convenient locations." It's more of that pervasive computing angle - data when and where you want it - that has been coming out of our collective ears over the past year.

The second point of the technology is to create so-called smart devices that make functional devices even more so. For example, what about a pen that can retrieve all of your notes from a previous meeting? So as you take notes and want to recall something that was said, the pen will either use a low-power FM signal or perhaps Bluetooth to send the notes over to a display. No, this is not Bill Gates' version of the broom in The Sorcerer's Apprentice wherein the pen takes on a life of its own and powers itself across your notebook to rewrite your old notes. What Microsoft is trying to accomplish is to make a device, in its own context, more useful.

Mitchell's greater point is that smart devices, not the subcarrier FM transmission, are the key to understanding what Microsoft is up to.

In the future, Big Red's Direct Band Network might work with 802.11 technology or Bluetooth to make it two-way.

In the meantime, the technology in its first instantiation will allow group messages to be sent out, sort of one-way instant messaging. The writer inputs at a PC or handheld and sends it out to a buddy list. It might be used to send an alert to a sales force or perhaps a message from a family member to everyone else in the family: "It's a girl!"

Going forward, Mitchell sees a Pocket PC with a secure digital card version of Network Direct Band integrated into the handheld so that the host can talk to the radio chip set, and share and update data.

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, says the song by George and Ira Gershwin, "Yes, they all laughed," but then it says, "Who's got the last laugh now?"

I wonder.

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