IBM clocks in with new Linux watch

Big Blue creates a second-generation Linux wristwatch, this one smaller than the original and sporting a gleaming golden display, but still just as impractical.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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HANOVER, Germany--IBM has created a second-generation Linux wristwatch, this one smaller than the original and sporting a gleaming golden display, but still just as impractical.

IBM is showing the new watch at the CeBit trade show. Though the watch is a technology demonstration and isn't for sale--its battery lasts only two hours--it's a lot closer to a commercial product than IBM's bulky first-generation model.

Internet-enabled watches are a popular publicity gimmick, though IBM competitor Hewlett-Packard is working on one in cooperation with Swiss watchmaker Swatch that HP promises will ultimately be an actual product.

The highlight of IBM's watch--besides the novelty of cramming an operating system designed for servers into a computer smaller than an Oreo cookie--is its bright OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display.

The display crams an array of 640 by 480 pixels into a watch face just 0.65 inches tall by 0.87 inches wide, said Chandra Narayanaswami, manager of the IBM Research Division's wearable computing program. The pixels are so small that sprinkling them judiciously gives the illusion of the ability to show a range of shades of gray, he said.

Narayanaswami demonstrated a small game and a display of a photo as well as more traditional timekeeping functions for the watch. The watch was two years in development, he added.

The golden yellow pixels against the black background not only are far easier to read than the muddy liquid crystal display of the first watch, but they consume less power, Narayanaswami said. That's key, given power constraints of a watch.

The watch battery lasts about two hours, Narayanaswami said. But improvements in software are making a difference. For example, through tuning Linux, IBM has increased the battery life of the original Linux watch from about 4 hours to 6, he said.

IBM foresees a day when such a watch would have a week's worth of battery power. Like a handheld computer, it could be recharged in a cradle during the night, where it would receive fresh updates such as traffic reports for its owner.

IBM's newer watch has 8MB of standard memory as well as 8MB of Flash memory, which keeps track of data even if the watch battery runs out of juice.

"It's the standard Linux kernel with a few changes," Narayanaswami said. "We have done some power management work."

Using filters and other adjustments, later versions of the OLED display will provide full color, Narayanaswami predicted.

IBM is a major backer of Linux, a clone of Unix that's become popular with most major computing companies. IBM has partnerships with Linux companies Red Hat, SuSE, Caldera Systems and Turbolinux.