When news leaked that Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) was going to enter the wearables market, it was met with a collective groan.
Whereas the success of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone has at least some portion of the public clamoring for its upcoming watch, the struggles of Microsoft's Windows Phone and Surface tablets have led to mass indifference when it comes to the company releasing a new form factor.
But as it has done on a few other occasions under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft managed to surprise the public. While few people were anticipating a wearable from the company, the one it actually delivered has turned some heads. Instead of a watch or a limited fitness tracker, the new Microsoft Band combines the most-desirable features of a number of wearables and marries them to a device with a sleek profile and a wealth of features that make sense for a wrist-worn device.
Todd Holmdahl, a Microsoft vice president, explained in a blog post.
We are also excited to launch the Microsoft Band, a smart band designed to be worn 24 hours a day by people who are active both in the gym and on the job. The Microsoft Band has 10 smart sensors for 24-hour heart rate monitoring, calorie burn measurement, advanced sleep quality tracking and more as well as Guided Workouts curated by Gold's Gym, Shape, Men's Fitness and Muscle & Fitness. The Microsoft Band will keep you connected at a glance with helpful, smart notifications including incoming calls, emails, texts and social updates as well as access to Cortana.
That's typical launch press-release hype, but in this case it may be warranted.
It has Cortana and live tiles
While Apple's Siri voice assistant has proven to be less than useful, Microsoft's Cortana works surprisingly well. (I have had the opportunity to test both of them.) Adding Cortana to Band gives consumers a product that delivers on the science fiction promise of wearables. Talk to Siri and you might be able to get directions. Speak to Cortana and you're James T. Kirk setting appointments (presumably with attractive aliens), tracking health information (without even needing Bones McCoy), and interacting with a mildly witty "robot" companion (which Star Trek oddly did not have).
All of the voice assistants on phones are mostly gimmicks as it's easier to just input the data with your hands. On a watchlike device, verbal commands become much more important. Cortana's ability to handle them well and the fact that Microsoft has made its assistant work really well with non-Microsoft apps -- specifically social media ones -- makes it a wearable that's actually useful.
The second innovation being brought from Windows to the Band is Microsoft's live tiles. These are the icons representing various apps that deliver live information. A stock app might show you prices from your portfolio while a news app may deliver a brief headline. It's information in bite-size form that's perfect for delivery in a watchlike device. People are accustomed to checking a watch for the time, so it's not crazy to think they might be willing to glance at their wrist to see a sports score or notice a social media update.
It's priced well
Microsoft has delivered a high-end, highly functional device at a price that's well below the $349 Apple will be selling its most basic Apple Watch for. The $199 cost of the Microsoft Band also places it below Samsung's (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) Gear 2, which retails for $299.99 (though it can be found at a discount).
People won't buy a Microsoft wearable just because it's cheaper, but pricing it below the leading devices suggests the company has learned from its Xbox pricing debacle. If a consumer is open to trying Microsoft Band, then making it cheaper than Apple Watch and Gear 2 may tip the scale in Microsoft's favor.
It works across all major smartphone platforms
The smartest thing Microsoft did with Band is not limit it to interfacing solely with Windows Phone. Because the company has such limited market share compared to Apple and Android, making Band Windows-dependent would have been foolhardy. Instead, the company delivered a product that integrates well with its rivals.
Microsoft has seen that many PC users are willing to pair their Windows-based work machines with iPhones and iPads or Android phones and tablets. In launching Band, the company is hoping that the reverse happens and dedicated iPhone or Android phone users will give its wearable a try.
Microsoft has changed
With Band, Microsoft shows that it has learned from the mistakes it made when it launched the Surface tablet. The company clearly understands that it needs to do more than deliver a good product -- I really like my original Surface RT -- it needs to be price competitive, and work with whatever devices a potential customer may own. Finding an audience for Band will still be an uphill battle, especially because it has yet to be established that consumers want a watchlike wearable from any provider, but Microsoft has delivered a strong contender.