Last October -- six months ahead of the Apple Watch's debut -- it launched the Microsoft Band. Reviews were mixed. Most complaints centered on the device's hardware. More of an activity tracker than a smartwatch, the Microsoft Band nonetheless filled an important roll in Microsoft's mobile ecosystem, giving Windows Phone an actual wearable gadget.
In recent weeks, Microsoft has pushed a number of important updates to Band, as well as to its companion app, Health. With Apple Watch having finally launched, how does Microsoft's improved gadget stand up to Apple's wearable?
Microsoft Band improves
In short, not particularly well. In February, and again in April, Microsoft made two major updates to Band that improved its functionality, but it still lags far behind Apple Watch in a number of key ways.
It's worth noting Microsoft's Bands capabilities and its pricing. In contrast to the Apple Watch, which starts at $350 and runs into the low five-figures, Microsoft Band is a flat $200. It includes support for notifications and for interaction with Microsoft's digital personal assistant, Cortana, but it's mostly built around fitness. Microsoft Band has 10 sensors in total, ones capable of monitoring activity level, steps taken, heart rate, and sleep. The data Band collects syncs to Microsoft's Health app, which is available on Windows Phone, Apple's iOS, and Android. The voice functions, however, are restricted to Windows Phone owners alone.
In its February update, Microsoft added a dedicated app for cyclists and a virtual keyboard that allowed owners of Windows Phones to respond to text messages from their wrist. The Health app was updated for better data tracking. Microsoft also introduced a software development kit that allowed third-party developers to create apps for Band (some have taken advantage of it).
In April, Microsoft updated Health again, allowing users to compare their vitals with others. The Band gained the ability to measure oxygen levels during exercise and suggest the best time for owners to schedule their workouts.
But Apple Watch is in a different class
These are all nice improvements, and certainly a sign that Microsoft remains committed both to Band and its Health platform. But Apple's wearable is in an entirely different class.
Microsoft Band supports a handful of third-party apps, but Apple Watch has more than 3,500. Both can monitor steps taken and heart rate, but Apple Watch supports Apple's NFC-based mobile payment system, Apple Pay. Owners of the Apple Watch can receive phone calls directly from their wrist, check maps, and view photos. Some of the apps that exist for Apple Watch were made by Microsoft itself, including PowerPoint, OneDrive, OneNote, and Skype. None of these apps are available for Microsoft Band.
Overall, Apple Watch is a fully featured platform. Microsoft Band is a fitness tracker with some additional functionality.
Microsoft will need more wearables to keep Windows Phone relevant
With their radically different price points and different styling, it may not be fair to view them as direct competitors. Yet both products are important to their respective companies, and with its cross-platform compatibility, Microsoft Band could actually steal some price-sensitive Apple Watch customers concerned more with fitness tracking than apps.
For Apple, Watch represents its next potential blockbuster a product -- a way to diversify its revenue and keep customers loyal to its ecosystem. With iPhone sales as strong as they have been, Apple doesn't need Watch to be a runaway hit, but with the glacial pace at which it enters new product categories, Watch may need to succeed if Apple is to ever become a company that's more than the iPhone.
Band is clearly less important to Microsoft, but it may play a vital role in keeping Windows relevant over the long term. Windows Phone is already a distant third behind Apple's iOS and Android, but the emergence of wearables could truly devastate any chances it has at carving out any market niche whatsoever. In addition to better apps, Microsoft will eventually need a more compelling wearable device to draw users to its ecosystem.
Even with its improvements, the Microsoft Band isn't it.