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Saturday, September 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft Smart Watch, with Dick Tracy appeal, seems a little passé

Seattle Times technology reporter

Abacus Smart Watch 2006


Price: $179. Choose among five watch-band styles.

Subscription cost: One year free with watch purchase; after that the cost is $40 a year.

Availability: Amazon.com, MSNDirect.com and from Brookstone's catalog and Web site.

Features: Time/date, news headlines, weather, traffic, stock quotes, sports scores, different digital watch faces.

Drawbacks: Large size.

I gave up wearing a wristwatch several years ago and have never regretted it.

Ditching a watch habit cultivated over two decades was incredibly freeing. It was a rejection of the time and deadline pressures that governed my life — at least in my mind. On a more practical level, I could see the time and date anytime I wanted on my cellphone, which is always in my purse.

What do you need a watch for these days, anyway?

Microsoft disagrees, and for nearly three years has been selling watches that it thinks people will use, even in this age of the ubiquitous cellphone and personal digital assistant. Key to the sales pitch is that there is lots of information you might want on your wrist: news headlines, movie times, traffic conditions, trivia and so on.

An intriguing concept. But does it resonate with buyers, or even the technology enthusiasts who boldly crossed fashion lines to wear calculator watches in the '80s and '90s?

Microsoft doesn't release sales numbers, but it's clear the company has had a tough time finding the right retail strategy for these watches, which are called Smart Watches but still known within the company as SPOT watches (after the Smart Personal Objects Technology they're built on).

Smart Watch models previously cost as much as $299 and were sold at Nordstrom, Fry's Electronics, CompUSA and other outlets. Now, only one model is being made (the $179 Abacus Smart Watch 2006, which went on sale in June), and it's sold only at Amazon.com, MSNDirect.com and through Brookstone's catalog and Web site. Microsoft has also discounted the subscription fee required to use the watch to $40 a year.

The watches sell best when a potential buyer has time to research the technology and features, said Holly Kemp, a group manager at Microsoft's SPOT division. A Web site is a better sales channel in that regard.

Trying it out

I wore the Abacus Smart Watch for two weeks to see if it could melt my watch-hatin' heart. And while there is much to like about the information the watch provides, I found it too big and bulky to wear on a daily basis.

There aren't any Smart Watches made specifically for women, and though Kemp at Microsoft says she wears hers like a bracelet, this is clearly a guy's watch. It screamed machismo upon its arrival in a slick black box with the name "Abacus" on it in silver. Its metal casing is 2 inches wide and nearly a half-inch thick.

The watch comes in five band styles: black leather, classic metal, modern metal, green fabric and brown crocodile. It can go for about three or four days between charging. A charger magnetically attaches to the back of the watch and can be plugged into an electric socket or a USB port.

And in true guy form, the watch doesn't come with many instructions. But it's pretty easy to figure out, and perhaps the best feature is that you never have to set the time — even when you travel to different time zones.

That's because the watch regularly receives information from a network of about 450 radio towers in North America. In the watch I reviewed, the antenna is cleverly hidden in the band. If you fly to Dallas from Seattle, for example, the watch will note the change of location and reset the time accordingly.

Spooky? A little. But I'd give my watch some Big Brother leeway to avoid having to reset the time. Microsoft says it has contracted with enough radio towers to cover 85 percent of the U.S. population, including the top 100 metropolitan markets in the country.

Traffic, weather, news

Those radio towers also deliver information to the watch in categories the user can pre-select. I chose to receive traffic updates for major highways around Seattle, movie times at two theaters near my house, local weather conditions, news headlines and "diversions" — famous quotations, word definitions and trivia.

It was a few days later, at a journalism brownbag discussion at work, that I found why this watch is so appealing to Microsoft. The employees there are in seemingly endless meetings, and, when trapped in a group setting, the watch is an irresistible way to while away the minutes.

At perhaps no other time would you be interested in the fact that on Sept. 6, 1926, the Kuomintang Chinese nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek reached Hankou at the confluence of the Han and the Yangtze rivers, and that Hankou would become the Kuomintang capital. But this headline might suddenly become fascinating when stuck in a strategy session about Vista's incompatibility with SQL Server 2000.

The news headlines include a one-sentence summary, but sometimes that sentence misses the heart of the news. A headline that read "2 Storm Victims Unknown, Not Forgotten," for example, was accompanied by only this sentence:

"Nobody knows the names of the men who were buried side by side in matching silver caskets on Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina."

Instead, Microsoft should transmit what journalism schools refer to as the "nut graph," the newsy, what-you-should-know part of the article.

The watch requires a subscription to Microsoft's MSN Direct service to access the information, and a one-year plan comes with the $179 purchase price. After that, the plans go for $40 a year. For an extra $20 a year, the watch can receive calendar reminders and instant messages — only incoming messages, of course, since the watch doesn't transmit outbound.

Watch plans used to be $59 a year, but in late 2004 Microsoft separated out the calendar and messaging, and charges additionally for those.

All in all, the Abacus Smart Watch 2006 is much improved over the original versions touted by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2003. While Smart Watches seem relegated to pet-project status at Microsoft, give the company kudos for doggedly sticking with them through thick and thin (this is probably the first Smart Watch article to ever use the word "thin").

As cellphones become more sophisticated, offering near-instant Web browsing and data capabilities, I wonder if the Smart Watch may have passed its prime. Or maybe its Dick Tracy appeal will endure with a small, yet committed, group of consumers.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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