Microsoft's Band Strives to Watch You More Closely

Courtesy Microsoft

There are so many fitness bands and smartwatches on the market that the intrepid consumer could cover both arms with them, leaving a little room for next year’s Apple Watch.

Microsoft is betting that its Band, on sale today, will be able to distinguish itself by digging deeper into users’ devices and apps to suck up data on their fitness, sleep, and general health habits. Then its companion app, Health, predicts future issues and serves as a free source of advice. “One thing health and fitness trackers do incredibly well today is tell you about your past, but you would be hard-pressed to find devices that do a decent job of giving you actionable information,” says Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.

At $199, Microsoft Band is pricier than competing fitness bands from companies like Fitbit and Jawbone. It doesn’t have the design intended to compete with the Apple Watch, which starts at $349, says Llamas.

Courtesy Microsoft

Microsoft Vice President Yusuf Mehdi, with a watch on one hand and his Band on the other, takes pains to avoid comparisons to Apple’s smartwatch. Although Microsoft’s product tells time, he says, it isn’t designed to be a statement piece.

It’s smart for Microsoft to avoid running headlong into the Apple juggernaut, says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. The only problem is the high-end fitness enthusiast market is smaller than the likely smartwatch market, he says.

“They tried to position it as a thing you might wear on your other hand to a watch,” he says. “It evades the Apple competition question and makes it look like they’ve made maybe a better Fitbit and for people who are intensely fitness-focused.”

Out of the box, the Band can connect to the Health app running on mobile phones with Windows but also with rival operating systems like Apple’s iOS and Google Android. Starting in January, customers will be able to use the app with other fitness bands, watches, and phones that run iOS and Android.

The Band is packed with 10 different sensors tracking things like GPS, acceleration, skin temperature, ultraviolet light exposure, heart rate, and stress, as measured by the changes in electrical resistance of a person’s skin. It will be able to tell users such things as how much deep sleep they’re getting, whether they’re burning calories from fat or carbs, where they lagged during a workout, and how long it takes to recover from a particular type of exercise.

Courtesy Microsoft

With a user’s permission in the future, Microsoft will connect Band and Health to its Office and calendar data, to cross-reference exercise with travel and sleep schedules during busier weeks. Customers can even pay with the Band at Starbucks, though the Health app isn’t automatically tracking the 430 calories in your Venti Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino.

Nine months into the tenure of Chief Executive Satya Nadella, the products bear several hallmarks of his strategy so far. One is the cross-platform approach of building products that work with Microsoft’s rivals as well as with Windows. Another is the focus on Microsoft as a company that can help users and companies stitch their data together in a way not all makers of gear can. “That’s something that’s been interesting to watch Microsoft wrestle with,” says McQuivey, “to find the things it really does do well.”

One more hallmark of the Nadella era: The Band will initially be available in the U.S. only and in limited quantities. That way, the company can tweak the first version—and avoid getting stuck with a ton of excess inventory if consumers don’t buy it. Call it a lesson learned from the Surface tablet. “It’s a first step,” says Microsoft’s Mehdi, who serves as vice president of devices and studios. “We are focused on getting feedback, learning, and adjusting.”

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