Microsoft is working on a fitness-focused smartband that's packed with bio-sensors, as well as support for all three major mobile ecosystems. That's the recent news from three independent sources, and it sounds intriguing — until you unpack the details, and map what's been reported against the wearables status quo.
Here's the general consensus from Forbes in late May, Tom's Hardware last week, and SuperSite For Windows on Wednesday: Microsoft is planning not a smartwatch, but an activity-tracking wristband. The display will be positioned on the inside of the wearer's wrist. It will have a heart-rate monitor among other fitness-oriented sensors (Tom's Hardware says 11 sensors total). And the device will support Android, iOS and Windows Phone. This device support is being celebrated as a rare trifecta because so many smartwatches only favor Android.
Does this news excite you? It probably shouldn't, unless you're a Windows Phone user who's been shut out of the wearables party. Follow along as I explain why so much of what's been reported about Microsoft's rumored wearable isn't a big deal.
Activity trackers are generally platform-agnostic
It's easy to conflate activity-tracking wristbands with full-on smartwatches. Both types of wearables attach to your wrist, and the devices usually share common features like step-tracking and simple smartphone notifications. But while smartwatches have generally only supported Android devices — and that's a serious problem indeed — activity trackers like Fitbit wristbands, Jawbone's UP24, and a host of others have been more egalitarian in their support, offering equal access to both Android and iOS users.
It's great news for Windows Phone users that Microsoft might release a high-profile activity tracker they can finally use, but it's not like an activity-tracking wristband with respect for Microsoft's smartphone OS will realign the planets. The most recent data shows that Windows Phone worldwide market share is a lowly 3 percent. Now add in the fact that activity trackers are a dubious product category to begin with: Data shows that most people stop using their trackers within six months of purchase.
Put it all together, and you see Microsoft would be granting a very small subset of consumers access to a product category that's already searching to find user engagement. I don't want to diminish the payoffs for Windows Phone users, but let's be realistic: The first big-name activity tracker to offer native support for Windows Phone won't propel Microsoft to wearables greatness.
All that said, now would be a good time to reiterate that full-on smartwatches have a terrible track-record for cross-platform support. Samsung watches only work with Samsung devices. The watches from Sony and Qualcomm only support Android hardware. Watches loaded with Android Wear — the OS that's poised to fix smartwatches — will only work with phones running Android 4.3 or later, and that equates to less than 25 percent of the Android universe. And should Apple release an iWatch, it's almost guaranteed to only work with iOS.
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