Microsoft's MSN Direct — an unusual low-bandwidth data service using FM radio subcarriers across the country to transmit weather, traffic, news headlines, stocks, and the like — was shut down on schedule yesterday. The move marks the final chapter of a failed experiment that began with 2002's introduction of Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) by Bill Gates himself at COMDEX, an initiative that Microsoft hoped would see bite-sized pieces of information populate dozens of everyday objects: watches, refrigerator magnets, clock radios, you name it. Ultimately, Gates' vision ended up coming to a fairly wide variety of products — retail SPOT devices included everything from Garmin navigation units to coffee makers — but the service (which required a subscription) never caught on with consumers, and its scheduled discontinuation was announced in late 2009.
In the last decade, the future of wireless was far more fluid than it is today — it wasn't clear what technologies would win, what devices they'd control, or what information they'd transmit. Companies of all sizes were taking billion-dollar gambles. Some of those gambles would pay off bigger than others: Mobile WiMAX, for instance, wasn't a complete failure, but it's ultimately being eclipsed by LTE's global dominance. Qualcomm's MediaFLO — once touted as a spectrum-efficient way to deliver media to many mobile subscribers at once — is now dead, its valuable 700MHz footprint having been sold off to AT&T for use in its growing LTE network.
Like MediaFLO, MSN Direct was also a one-way multicast network; that is, it delivered the same data to every device at all times, and those devices couldn't talk back. Because it used tiny slivers of bandwidth between FM radio stations to transmit, it couldn't deliver a lot of data — just small chunks of text, essentially — and it refreshed that data very slowly. Weather reports and news headlines could often lag reality by many hours. It wasn't optimal, but at the time of its conception, it seemed to be the best option for what Gates and Microsoft were trying to accomplish: ultra-low power draw on simple devices that had limited display capability.
Ultimately, MSN Direct was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Much of what it was trying to accomplish is now better served by two technologies that are far more ubiquitous than they were in 2002 — Wi-Fi and high-speed cellular — and the rest, consumers don't seem to care about. (It turns out people aren't willing to pay extra for a coffee maker that can give you a weather report.) MSN Direct-enabled wristwatches — one of the highest-profile device categories to be touted by the platform, manufactured by Fossil, Swatch, Suunto, and Tissot — were also commercial failures, no doubt hindered by the shrinking of the wristwatch industry as a whole; cellphones were just becoming standard issue, and they could all tell the time.
There's some indication that the watch industry is poised for a resurgence and a number of tech firms like WIMM and MetaWatch are trying to get in the game, but that's a story that hasn't fully played out yet. And what's more, all of the current crop of high-tech watches have learned an important lesson since Microsoft's heady SPOT days: they're smartphone companions, not merely information appliances unto themselves. MSN Direct was designed from the outset to be a standalone technology, and that doesn't play particularly well when everyone has an iPhone or an Android device in their pocket.
That said, most MSN Direct devices have long since been retired into our junk drawers with one notable exception: many Garmin navigation units over the last several years came out of the box with MSN Direct receivers for traffic data (among other things), and that capability will no longer function as of this week. You can find a list of affected units on Garmin's website — and if you're in that category, you might be able to replace the power cable with a different unit that will receive traffic data via TMC. Contact Garmin for details.