Microsoft on the ‘SPOT’ at COMDEX

Microsoft has been thinking outside of the (PC, PDA) box as of late.

With the release of its Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) initiative, the Redmond, Wash.-based software king is putting its technology in everyday items like alarm clocks, wristwatches, refrigerator magnets, pens and key chains.

The three-year-old program was unveiled Sunday, when Bill Gates showed up on stage at COMDEX Fall 2002 with a Smart Alarm Clock that could receive text messages, sports scores and weather. However the real ‘brains’ behind the technology comes courtesy of a chipset made by National Semiconductor .

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based firm was the only chipmaker that worked with developers in Microsoft Research’s Smart Personal Objects group for two years to get the specs just right. The chipset is comprised of a receiver, a central processing unit, and related Microsoft software.

“We started with the core functions and scenarios that customers told us they wanted, and worked from there to build all of the enabling technology needed, pretty much from scratch,” said Microsoft Personal Objects Group general manager Bill Mitchell. “We created a new miniature software platform that fits right into the .NET architecture and we worked with National Semiconductor to fabricate a new chipset that contains and runs the new software platform: sort of the Smart personal objects ‘brain’ that can be dropped into objects to make them smart.”

Microsoft is currently testing the first batches of the chips in several devices.

“We’re currently in pre-production for this chipset in our plant in South Portland, Maine,” National Semiconductor spokesperson Mike Brozda told “They’re not up to full speed yet, but we expect to make more announcements in January about the time as CES (Computer Electronics Show).”

For example, Microsoft says a Smart Pen with SPOT technology could write on plain paper with normal ink, but would also has the ability to transfer the information back to a PC for recognition and storage.

Mitchell said Microsoft is “invested heavily” in its SPOT initiative and has spent many a night with focus groups on the project.

“Customers are the litmus test for what constitutes ‘smart,'” said Mitchell. “We can’t just re-purpose some existing technology on an everyday object and label it ‘smart.’ We wouldn’t add digital-camera or mobile-phone technology to create a smart wristwatch, for example, because this technology would not enhance the key function and purpose of the watch. We believe that very specialized user interfaces are required of Smart Personal Objects as well; it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of space.”

Mitchell said the first SPOT-enhanced products should be available on the market “within the next year or so.”