Watch Will Abandon Hands, Embrace Wireless

Have you ever lost track of your child at the mall? Well, a new watch with wireless technology may let little Johnny or Jane send mom and dad an instant message, or trigger a sound that will direct the anxious parents to the whereabouts of their child.

France Télécom SA's R&D (research and development) announced Wednesday that it has inked a partnership deal with French watchmaker Xelia Technologies SA. The pair have agreed to collaborate on creating a watch that might help children learn to tell the time through a digital-age style of instruction, and also provide kiddies with access to a smattering of wireless technologies. In April of next year, the two companies plan to demonstrate an initial prototype of the product and the surrounding wireless services. An entire suite of communication applications is due to follow in November 2001.

Designed for young children, Xelia currently manufactures a watch that abandons traditional watch hands in favor of an image or symbol-based model of telling time. The watch organizes a child's day through a series of icons that depict daily events. Instead of the confusing big hand/little hand approach, the Xelia watch flashes images for waking up, having breakfast, leaving for school or brushing teeth before bed.

By partnering with a telecommunications provider, the uses of the watch may expand far beyond flashing milk and cookies.

The partners have set the goal of connecting the watch to wireless phones, PCs, TV sets, and possibly parents' watches. With a mobile interface, France Télécom predicts that children may one day send pictures between friends and family, have messaging functions, or even open a household door, all via a watch. The French telecom provider also said that television sets may be programmed to recognize a child's return home from school and automatically tune in to a preset station designated by either the child or their parents.

This month, IBM Corp. released word on a project to install Linux on series of wristwatches that would have some similarities in functionality to the planned France Télécom-Xelia product. Big Blue's version, however, will not focus on recess and snack time as much as it will give users access to e-mail, stock quotes, phone numbers, and a variety of other personal digital assistant-like features. [See "Honey, I Shrunk the Linux," Aug. 9.]While IBM's watch may sound appealing to some, don't expect to have open-source code around your wrist for another couple of years. IBM must still move past a few technological hurdles like the size and battery-life of the high-powered device.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst for Gartner Group Inc., said a few companies have begun dashing toward tech-heavy watches, but doubts how effective the strategy may be.

"People tend to choose a watch more for style than substance," Dulaney said. He added that with watches having such small display screens, people will likely choose other tools for data-related tasks. "If we are moving toward wearable computers, it is not going to come in the form of a watch," Dulaney said.þFrance Télécom, based in Paris, France, can be reached at +33-1-4444-2222 or http://www.francetelecom.fr/. Xelia, based in La Rochelle, France, can be reached at +33-05-4650-5505 or http://www.xelia.com/.

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