November 11, 2009

MsnlogosunIT’s been a few weeks since news broke that Microsoft would be winding down the MSN Direct service in 2012, ending an eight-year run for the technology that used FM radio sideband to deliver snippets of information to low-power devices. I remember attending the CES keynote at which MSN Direct was unveiled and receiving a flyer from competitor Ambient Devices. That bit of guerilla marketing occurred as Ambient’s product line was more objects d’arte than consumer products, but Ambient Devices is still plugging away at products that use such little power they often don’t need a plug. One of its latest to incorporate its paging network receiver is a hybrid alarm clock/weather station that has long been an obvious opportunity to me. Best Buy apparently thinks so, too.

MSN Direct delivered worthwhile functionality. Its two main forays were smart watches (Switched On discussed one of the last smart watches for which Microsoft licensed the Abacus brand from Fossil.) and portable navigation devices. Alas, the service’s demise has been announced comes just as we are seeing Microsoft’s rival Google decide to front the cost of two-way turn-by-turn direction with the Droid. Another Microsoft competitor RIM (it of the Nokia alliance motivation) lend the BlackBerry brand to a smart watch that tips the fashion scales back toward geek chic with he InPulse smartwatch. Surely there will be more of these wrist-mounted cellphone companions as the low-power Bluetooth spec formerly known as WiBree enters the market.

It’s disappointing to see MSN Direct go because I appreciate clever hacks and because it tantalized us with connecting devices that had no other practical means to receive information. Indeed, Microsoft clearly continues to look for alternative means to affordable wireless bandwidth via the White Spaces Coalition, and has teamed up with some powerful allies toward making it a reality.

Regardless, though, the superior price-capacity ratios of 4G wireless networks will open up many new devices to wireless connectivity. Ironically, economically servicing devices that may have modest bandwidth needs becomes practical for the carriers as they deploy their fastest networks. The power requirements may not accommodate a smart watch, but it will clearly have a big impact eventually. As for Ambient Devices, it looks like a case where David managed to outlive Goliath.

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