activity trackersImage: Jon Phillips

You won't want Microsoft's wearable just for 11 sensors or cross-platform support

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. 

Image: Mike Homnick

The Jawbone UP24 already supports Android and iOS, accounting for 97 percent of all smartphones.

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.

Were Microsoft to release a full-fledged smartwatch with three-way OS support, that would be more interesting. But a simple activity-tracker? No, not so much.

11 sensors: no big deal

Referencing unnamed sources, the rumor reports sing a common tune: This upcoming wristband will be squarely focused on activity tracking. All three stories say Microsoft will include a heart-rate monitor, and Tom’s Hardware specifies there will be 11 sensors total.

Oooh. Eleven sensors. That sure sounds like a lot—like some kind of fancy, hospital-grade medical machine strapped to your wrist. But once you begin counting up likely sensors, you quickly see that 11 different ones isn’t a big deal.

toddham iwatch run 100313906 large Image: Todd Hamilton

All iWatch rumors suggest Apple's wristband would focus on fitness-tracking. And the latest scuttlebut says it will have 10 or more sensors.

Recent reports say the oft-rumored iWatch will have 10 or more sensors, so when the last iWatch rumor story broke, I engaged the CEO of a sensor manufacturing company to tell me what type of components Apple would likely include. His feedback was rather snoozy. You can read my full report here, but here’s the short version: Once you get past table-stakes-caliber sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes and compasses, the march to 10 gets pretty boring. You’re left with a spectroscopic heart-rate monitor, an oxymetry sensor that provides more information for accurate heart-rate reports, and skin conductance and temperature sensors to measure exertion.

Of course, there’s absolutely zero guarantee that either Apple or Microsoft would deploy the sensors I mention here. I just want to emphasize the idea that 10 or 11 sensors wouldn’t necessarily break new ground in bio-data collection. Basis has been selling wristbands with heart-rate, skin conductance and skin temperature sensors for a number of years now.

Do you own a Basis band? Do your friends and family? Probably not. My point exactly.

According to reports, the rumored Microsoft wristband will be released anytime between October and sometime in Q4, and despite all my cautionary words above, I’m still very interested to see what Redmond is cooking up. Imagine an industrial design that borrows design cues from the always-interesting Surface family. That alone would be sure to capture headlines for at least a few days.

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