How the Microsoft Band Targets Users the Apple Watch Excludes
Microsoft has taken its first step into the market for wearables with the Microsoft Band and its accompanying Microsoft Health cloud service. Microsoft Health will analyze the data collected not only by the wrist-worn fitness tracker’s onboard sensors, but by the other devices and apps that consumers use on a daily basis to get a better picture of their health and activity levels.
As The New York Times reports, Microsoft is the latest to join a “stampede” of tech companies that want into the business of enabling users to collect and track their personal health and fitness data. Fitness-focused wearables, especially, are a way to participate without the regulatory headaches of creating true medical devices or services.
It’s impossible to avoid a comparison of the black rubber wearable to the other devices with which it will compete for market share. Perhaps its most notable rival is the Apple Watch. Though on many counts the Microsoft Band can be compared to the Apple Watch — each company’s health ecosystem now includes a cloud platform, an app that can integrate third-party data, and a wearable device that generates data of its own — Microsoft’s offerings seem targeted at the consumers that Apple’s devices exclude.
That is to say, the Microsoft Band looks to include anyone without an iPhone, those without the ability or desire to pay the high price for the Apple Watch, or those loath to adopt a smartwatch at multiple times the price but fractions of the battery life of a more focused fitness tracker.
For those outside the Apple ecosystem — or even those inside it who aren’t yet convinced of the Apple Watch’s utility — the Microsoft Band offers technology in a $199 wearable device that has typically been available only in more expensive packages. More than bells and whistles, some of these features could make valuable use cases for specific groups of users like runners, who could use the GPS radio to track their routes and distance without the need to both wear the band and carry a paired smartphone.
The Apple Watch, by contrast, will start at $349, require an iPhone for GPS tracking, and won’t be available until next year. The Microsoft Band is already available online and in Microsoft retail stores. A GPS-enabled watch by FitBit, called the Surge, will cost $250 when it becomes available next year.
While Microsoft’s device is yet unproven — heart rate tracking, for instance, is an area where wrist-based devices have struggled with accuracy — the company perhaps has even more to prove with the Health platform that accompanies the device. The data that the platform collects from the Microsoft Band and from the other devices, apps, and services that users integrate with it will need to provide useful insights in order to prove valuable to users long-term. Many consumers who have purchased a wearable device in the past use it infrequently a year later, and Microsoft has much to prove in the fitness category where, as The New York Times puts it, the company has no pedigree.
But what does this new device look like? What are its features and its capabilities, and what can its wide assortment of sensors accomplish? How will Microsoft leverage its newness on the fitness scene and its experience with cloud computing to give users a new way to track their health and fitness? And what does Microsoft’s vision of its own health ecosystem have to say about the wider landscape of how consumers will learn about and track their own health and fitness?
With its entrance into the wearables space, Microsoft has chosen to keep its focus clear, and is concentrating on fitness. The Microsoft Band tracks heart rate, steps, calorie burn, and sleep quality, and also enables users to see email previews and calendar alerts on their wrists. It also provides guided workouts and GPS run or bike mapping, integrates a timer and alarm, and even includes Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, when used with a Windows Phone. For Windows Phone users running the 8.1 update, Cortana can answer questions, take notes or set reminders, perform tasks like sending a text message or playing a song, or give driving directions and updates on traffic, weather, stocks, and sports.
Incoming calls, texts, social updates, or weather alerts are visible on the band. Whether they use an iPhone, an Android, or a Windows Phone, users can receive text messages on the Microsoft Band and reply with a “pre-set instant response.” They can also see incoming calls and voicemail notifications, as well as receive notifications about friends’ tweets or Facebook updates.
Microsoft cites features like 24-hour heart rate monitoring and built-in GPS as “cutting-edge” technology that combines the power of all of 10 sensors built in to the Microsoft Band. According to Microsoft’s official page on the sensors included in the Microsoft Band, the wearable features an optical heart rate monitor, three-axis accelerometer, gyrometer, GPS radio, microphone, ambient light sensor, galvanic skin response sensors, and a UV sensor. The product page on Microsoft’s online store lists a separate “skin temperature sensor” and a “capacitive sensor.”
These sensors can measure metrics like skin temperature, calories burned, number of steps taken, periods of restful and light sleep, or the route users take when they run or bike. The ambient light sensor can adjust the brightness of the touchscreen automatically, and the UV sensor can give users the information they need to decide if they need sunscreen, a hat, or to stay inside for a few hours.
Additionally, the galvanic skin response sensor measures the conductivity of the skin between the GSR sensor under the clasp and the GSR contact under the face of the band, so that the Microsoft Band can sense whether the user is wearing it and adjust how it monitors his or her activities.
The wearable uses two 100mAh lithium ion batteries, which are intended to power 48 hours of “normal use,” based on an hour of exercise tracking and eight hours of sleep tracking per day, though the Microsoft Band’s specifications page notes that “advanced functionality like GPS will impact battery performance.” The batteries will fully charge in under 1.5 hours, via a magnetically coupled USB connector, and can reach nearly 80% during 30 minutes of charging. Microsoft recommends charging the band “during routine periods of downtime.”
The Microsoft Band is less a smartwatch and more a fitness band with a large display, which measures 1.4 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 320 by 106 pixels. While the band does include some of the features that have traditionally been the exclusive territory of true smartwatches, it’s interesting to note that the Microsoft Band, along with other recent fitness trackers like it, can receive notifications from a user’s smartphone.
With the introduction of the Microsoft Band also comes the unveiling of the cloud service that the company has designed to accompany the new wearable. As explained on Microsoft’s website, the cloud-based Health can crunch fitness data from activity trackers, smartwatches, smartphones, and apps to generate “actionable insights” using the Intelligence Engine in the cloud.
Microsoft says that those insights could include which exercises burned the most calories, how much recovery time is necessary before another workout, or how much restful sleep the user had in a given night. The Intelligence Engine “uses everything we’ve learned as a company about cloud technology and hardware innovation and makes it work for you.”
The company notes that Microsoft Health will continually improve, learning from the data that users share with it and in return, giving more accurate insights. Health can also pull data from other Microsoft services, like Outlook, and will be able to correlate the day’s activities with their effects on a user’s stress levels or sleep quality. The Health app will work not only on Windows Phone, but on Android phones and the iPhone, as well. And Microsoft is working with app makers like Jawbone, MapMyFitness, and RunKeeper to enable them to share data with Health.
Health and the Microsoft Band will also integrate with HealthVault, a platform that Microsoft launched in 2007, just as the Apple Watch and the Health app will integrate with Apple’s HealthKit. HealthVault focuses less on personal health and fitness data than on medical records, and how the two will integrate wasn’t immediately clear. On its website, Microsoft notes: “Because we share core principals [sic], HealthVault features prominently in our broad vision for Microsoft Health. We’re excited about the synergy and we’ll keep you posted on our plans.”
Microsoft emphasizes that Health and the Microsoft Band are “designed to be awesome” on Windows Phone, iPhone, or Android. The company is using that inclusiveness as a selling point for the new wearable, and notes on its website: “We have a powerful vision of what’s possible when premium device and service partners collaborate on an open platform. Eventually, you’ll be able to use the information gathered from a variety of devices and services to give you insights into your entire day across nutrition, work, fitness and rest.”
But as Re/code reports, Microsoft’s vision goes beyond just collaboration with app developers. The company is also planning on letting other hardware manufacturers take advantage of the sensor technology that it’s developed by licensing all 10 sensor modules and the accompanying software. Perhaps in a way similar to Google’s development of the Nexus line of Android devices, Microsoft will work with equipment manufacturers to design devices that showcase the full capability of the technology and the software that powers it.
How large the fitness band market will actually get is another unknown. Re/code notes that current estimates put the number of bands sold between spring 2013 and spring 2014 at only 3.3 million. While the entire market is predicted to expand, given the entrance of major tech companies like Apple, the degree to which it will increase is uncertain.
But Microsoft is betting that a large number of consumers will want a fitness tracker, particularly one with the ambition to offer them insight into their health and fitness through the collection of data from a variety of sensors, plus other apps and devices. Regardless of what smartphone owners use or which apps or devices they prefer, Microsoft wants to be there to handle the fitness data.
While Apple’s new smartwatch, iOS 8 Health app, and HealthKit data framework that underpin it all could provide a pretty comprehensive solution for those who have already bought into the Apple ecosystem, Microsoft wants to build a comprehensive ecosystem for all of the consumers that the Apple Watch excludes.
At a lower price point than Apple’s high-end smartwatch — which depends on the iPhone and sacrifices battery life in favor of a variety of functions — Microsoft is offering a focused and capable fitness tracker for smartphone users on any platform. Though as yet unproven, just like the Apple Watch, the Microsoft Band will appeal to those who want a better picture of their health and fitness levels, delivered by a device that not only features a variety of sophisticated sensors but is also clear about its identity as a fitness tracker, not as a fashion accessory.
In fact, The New York Times reports that Yusuf Mehdi, the corporate vice president of devices and studios, said during a demonstration at Microsoft: “We’re not trying to replace your watch. This is prioritizing function over form.” While the comment may have been meant to imply that Apple’s wearable is more about aesthetics than utility, it also seems intended as a profession of Microsoft’s mission with its own health ecosystem.
Microsoft wants to build a newly open way to collect famously siloed health and fitness data. The strategies it’s adopting include building ways to collect better data and encouraging other manufacturers to create excellent devices, too. And perhaps most importantly, Microsoft recognizes that in the world of health and fitness data, the value isn’t in the data itself, but in the insight that smart analysis of that data can give to users. It hopes that that’s a benefit that anyone — Android, iPhone, or Windows Phone user — can recognize and get behind.