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The Hanging Gadgets of Babylon

Microsoft Rediscovers the Wrist Watch

Does anyone remember the Timex digital wristwatch that once interfaced with Microsoft Outlook or even, before that, Clive Sinclair's ' Black Watch' in 1975?

God, how I wanted one but at £24.95, it was a week's wages and my first pocket calculator cost me £30.00 at around the same time.

Well, digital watches are back, a new generation of gadgetry and potentially, the hanging promise of the next Windows monopoly on your wrist, well sort of, through the announcement of Microsoft's new 'SPOT' technology this week.

During a keynote speech to launch the International Consumer Electronics Show (ICES) in Las Vegas, Bill Gates explained how Microsoft’s recently-unveiled Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) would be integrated into watches. Not only will the watches tell the time, but they will also deliver up-to-the-minute and useful information, which all rather sounds to me like SMS alerts on mobile phones, today’s horoscope and more photos of David Beckham.

This next great technological breakthrough will also embrace the fridge magnet which Microsoft appears to believe is as ubiquitous as the wristwatch. The fridge-magnet is of course an integral component of US foreign policy and if you don’t have one, you could expect a surprise visit from the US military, who are currently preparing the way for the introduction of fridge magnets to Iraq.

Personally, I much prefer, the watch as an elegant item of fashion and function, like the classic Hanhart aviators watch shown below, rather than an "el gismo fantastico' but there is a danger that Microsoft might find itself following in the footsteps of Sir Clive Sinclair where this technology is concerned.

Of course, SPOT isn’t really about a new generation of Microsoft-badged plastic gadgets, magnetic or otherwise. It’s about wireless or more accurately radio, ‘Data-broadcast Networks’, Microsoft’s next great leap and early evidence of the company ‘morphing’ into new technologies and markets, as I suggested in my predictions for 2003. This gives us a future with four principal communications and broadcast mediums, Digital Television, the Internet, Digital (3G) Telephony and Digital Radio and there are no prizes for guessing who might be focusing on preparing the ground for the anticipated growth of these last two with new ‘Smart’ key-ring type devices and new partnerships.

Whether the world is ready yet for more digital gadgetry is a moot point but the company has enough investment capital to be able to gamble with new ideas. Microsoft took a considerable risk by entering the PDA and the cellular phone market. The former, through Pocket PC finally paid-off, after the painfully expensive learning experience of Windows CE but the market for the latest ‘Stinger’ phones has yet to be proven.

Finally and as an historical footnote, I see that the Black Watch fiasco had a devastating effect on Sinclair's finances: the company made a loss of £355,000 for 1975-6 on a turnover of £5.6m. The company would have gone bankrupt had the Government, in the shape of the National Economic Board, not stepped in to prop it up with subsidies. It was somewhat ironic that the Thatcher government - of which Sinclair was an ardent supporter and from whom he gained his knighthood - abolished the NEB and the safety net it provided. The next time his company tottered, Sinclair - who I once used to drink with at Draycotts wine bar in Chelsea - had no option but to abandon it to an arch-rival


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