A Year with Fossil’s Tech Watches

by Reads (30,027)

The last two years saw the release of some long-anticipated computer wristwatches. Both were announced early 2003, a year that saw some of the most unique products announced in the handheld space — but it would take more than two years before anyone could strap one on.

I was fortunate enough to see the Fossil Wrist PDA running the Palm OS at the 2002 announcement in Las Vegas: a working prototype. As I beheld the little metal 66 MHz Dragonball-powered wristwatch, Bill Gates had just announced the SPOT watch, then also in development at Fossil and other watch companies. At the time I thought it ironic that just as a Palm licensee was actually showing a product that looked like it could ship soon, Microsoft was playing catchup. It would turn out differently.

Wrist PDA and WristNet Fossil’s SPOT-based Wrist Net watches, which incorporate an FM radio receiver to receive news and information, would eventually ship in early 2004. The Wrist PDA that looked so ready back in 2002 didn’t ship until January of 2005, entering a market that was no longer ripe for PDAs of any kind. 2003 and 2004 saw many major handheld players drop out of the market altogether, notably electronics and entertainment giant Sony Electronics. So Fossil’s once ambitious Wrist PDA sailed into stagnant waters.

In a recent interview with Fossil’s Bill Geiser, who runs Fossil’s Watch Tech Division, I learned a little bit about what happened with the Wrist PDA, and got just a clue about where the company’s headed.

“The Wrist PDA faced huge distribution challenges from the day it came out,” said Geiser. Though Fossil has excellent distribution channels for watches, few of their regular retail customers would be interested in stocking significant quantities of a high-tech watch, according to Geiser, and they had few relationships with the consumer electronics retailers that would be interested. So getting the product to potential buyers was difficult.

Supply was the other problem. “We’re the 800 pound gorilla when it comes to sourcing things like hands, watch faces, and cases; but we had no leverage when it came to buying massive quantities of Dragonball processors,” said Geiser. “We had really pushed the technology to make a PDA so small, especially in the display area.” So it was supply-side difficulties that ultimately delayed the release of the Wrist PDA.

While he wouldn’t elaborate, Geiser maintained that Fossil’s line of tech watches would continue.

Still, it seems clear that the Palm OS Wrist PDA has not been a success, with the formerly $199 to $250 watch now selling for as low as $80, and no longer available from Fossil’s own website. The WristNet watch, on the other hand, will continue to be available for some time to come, with Microsoft still committed to SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) and Fossil announcing a new batch of watches at CES 2006. The new line will include a new band design and several iterations of that band, leather, metal, and nylon, rather than the thicker nylon/leather hybrid currently shipping.

So What Happened?

I was originally slated to review the Fossil Wrist PDA when it came out, but the birth of my second son brought with it some serious health issues for both him and his mother that continued through 2005, so the review never happened despite my best intentions. Because my intentions never ceased, however, I did get a lot of experience with the Fossil Wrist PDA and later the Abacus Wrist Net and Abacus Wrist PDA. Both served me frequently on hospital visits and organizing a remarkably hectic work and family life.

A good deal has been written about both watches, so I won’t go into detail about every feature or foible. I have been surprised by just how many reviews, especially of the Wrist PDA, introduce all the features of the watch, but completely avoid the issue of whether either watch is truly useful. So I’ll talk more about my experience with the two watches.

While mom and baby were in the hospital — totaling more than a month and a half — I wore the Wrist PDA every day. Though I still had my LifeDrive with me for email and work, it was usually tucked in a diaper bag or backpack. The Wrist PDA was more convenient for retrieving nursery security codes and caregiver names in a hurry. I even used the miniature stylus to record medications and conditions to look up later on the Internet. Usually without even removing the stylus, I could navigate to the Memo Pad and get the info necessary to enter any hospital floor completely prepared.

I’d loaded up the Wrist PDA with an old copy of Scripture (now MyBible by Laridian Software), and managed to sync a small set of AvantGo channels to the watch, so I had plenty to read while waiting for doctors and nurses. As anyone familiar with AvantGo knows, you can keep current on news, weather, sports, and even keep up-to-date local movie times on your PDA if you sync regularly, so I had almost all I needed on my wrist. Passwords Plus secured all my important personal data, and CityTime kept me on top of world time for my occasional international calls. The version of TimeCopy that came with Mark/Space Missing Sync kept the watch relatively accurate (the Wrist PDA’s clock drifts this way and that like the weeds of the sea if not synced every other day).

Wrist PDA in Stand Others had mentioned problems with battery life, but I tend to keep my Palm devices in a cradle and sync daily, so I had no problem keeping the Wrist PDA charged. Shortly after receiving the Fossil Wrist PDA, I built two stands to make charging them overnight a little easier, while leaving them functional as a desktop clock at home and at work.

But there was one problem. The Fossil was really heavy, and after a month of wear, my wrist started to ache, and typing — as necessary as breathing for this writer — became painful. The hospital trips were less frequent by then, so I wore it only when I was away from home or office, as a backup Palm.

Part II discusses:

  • Wrist Net
  • Abacus Wrist PDAs
  • Conclusions

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