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Tuesday, 14 January 2003

Microsoft's SPOT

Last time I wrote about the prospect of a multitude of dumb but interconnected devices everywhere, I could hardly contain my glee that Microsoft had announced something called SPOT. At the time, it looked like the future just might be including an open Microsoft--smart devices that would talk using established standards on ad-hoc networks that we could play with and recombine in new and interesting ways.

Not Hot Spot

SPOT, as we all know by now, is Microsoft's new Smart Personal Objects Technology. Only they're not, really. They're quite dumb, and while they're undeniably interesting (albeit in a fleeting manner), one of the main problems is that they use something called DirectBand technology. DirectBand uses FM radio stations and unused frequencies to transmit a whole bunch of data (the usage of bunch here is rather loose, since it's not a terribly large amount of data at all). In the UK, it's pretty much the same system that is used to provide station IDs and interrupt you with traffic reports if you feel like it (RDS/EON).

You see, SPOT would've been much more interesting had it been slightly more open. Microsoft says that SPOT will let me know what I want, when I want it. To a certain extent: it'll let me know information like scores, stock quotes and weather, news and traffic reports. It seems like a re-hash of the SMS data system used on GMS phones.

What would've been better?

One thing about the SPOT data network is that it would've been cheap. There isn't blanket GSM or CDMA coverage in the States, but you can be sure that there's an FM radio transmitter nearby, and thanks to media-deregulation, it's pretty easy to deal with just one company--ClearChannel--to get access to the transmitters. The problem is that the network--as far as I can see--is closed.

Closed is boring. I'd like to say that no-one likes walled gardens, but then someone might point me at the millions of AOL subscribers who think that all the AOL content is "the internet". To which I reply: fine, but AOL's value increased severalfold when its users could finally see the outside world. DirectBand is, for all intents and purposes, a closed system. I can't add my content, and I rather thought that was the point. My content, when and where I wanted it. Instead, what I get is the content that I choose, from your selection, when I want it, which is somewhat different.

We'll see exactly how closed DirectBand is when it launches, but I have the feeling that there's not enough bandwidth for anyone to make a feed available over the network.


So, SPOT's not hot. It's lukewarm. Or tepid. It's definitely not hot. It definitely doesn't allow the kind of recombination that developers are dying for and that will probably create some kind of inadvertent killer app to sell to consumers. Predictably, with Microsoft, there are choke points that are firmly in their control. Again: my selection of your content, when I want, not what I want, when I want. The problem, it seems, is in the network.

Full Burn

We're back to what SPOT could've been, though I think the market's not quite ready yet. We're tantalisingly close. The DirectBand network is an almost-there network. It has the coverage, but doesn't provide the connectivity: it's one way, for starters and it's push. One squirt to many devices. What we have now is the nearly ubiquitous and cheap devices (the SPOT devices themselves) and a broadcast, closed network. One out of three.

Networks? GSM in the USA isn't ready, either: it's not everywhere. GPRS is getting there, but it's being leapfrogged by some form of CDMA, where we'll get nearly the data rates we've been promised, and probably at some sort of exorbitant rate for a couple of years. 802.11b might work, since all you have to do is make sure is that the access points are connected to the net, but then you need at least near-ubiquitous access point coverage.

Now, what I want to know is why no one's sold a display and receive/send GSM-based device with some on-board memory that can hold more than ten SMS messages with a fridge magnet on the back.

Right now, we're not quite ready yet. But it's coming. When it does, we'll have son-of-SPOT. Then I'll be much happier.

2 comments and trackbacks

ext|circ Jan 14, 2003 8:41 PM
New article up in the articles section: Microsoft's SPOT: One thing about the SPOT data network is that it would've
Read more in Microsoft's SPOT »

information about spot

Posted by: atul on July 24, 2003 03:39 PM


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