Over the past couple months, I’ve been wearing fitness devices on each wrist. My left wrist is home to the Microsoft Band 2, while my right wrist has been providing temporary lodging for a few different devices. I have full comparison articles coming, but due to some snags with my real job (I run Penton’s popular tech conferences), I’ve yet to finish the comparison reviews and get them posted. Soon, soon.
Throughout this process (which is still ongoing, btw), I’ve learned a few important things.
First, the Microsoft Band 2, despite its build quality shortcomings, is a very competitive device. In a surprising number of areas, it exceeds those fitness wearables touted to be the most popular and the most accurate. This is actually pretty significant considering the Microsoft Band 1 was released without fanfare and only as a device meant to prove a test case for the built-in sensors. Essentially, Microsoft delivered a beta hardware product on an unassuming consumer market and in some respects, I don’t think the company had any hope of it every catching on. With the numerous reports of quality problems with the latest version, Microsoft is still working out the details. The company has yet to deliver a consumer-proof version. But, as problematic as this is for Microsoft’s device, the company is not alone in this area. Fitbit, Garmin, Tom-Tom, and all the others are plagued by reports of smashed screens, torn bands, inaccurate readings, etc. But, the problem here is that when consumer complaints start to mount, Microsoft is one company that has the most problem shedding negative perception, primarily due to a journalist industry that gets the most reward and traffic from creating damaging headlines and vendor gang banging.
So, Microsoft’s fitness device is actually pretty stellar. But, as I noted just previously, it’s essentially still a beta product. I mean, c’mon – Microsoft Band? That’s one of the most nondescript, unimaginative product names on the planet. Microsoft needs to rebrand and rename this device in the near future. Surface Watch anyone?
But, truly, Microsoft’s ability to succeed in this area can’t be the hardware. Those die-hard Band enthusiasts may want to lynch me for this but it’s not the hardware that Microsoft needs to focus on. Microsoft needs to do with the Band just like it has done/is doing with its Surface tablets in that it is creating “experiences” to showcase its operating systems, but then allow 3rd party partners to benefit from its successes by taking hardware to the next level. So, yes, Microsoft needs to continue to create the perfect hardware experience, but only to showcase its fitness/health platform. Microsoft’s focus should be to create the absolute best backend Health platform and then allow any 3rd party hardware devices to connect and upload data.
One of things I really like about one of the devices I’ve been testing against the Microsoft Band recently (shhh…not going to give this away yet) is that it’s part of an entire fitness ecosystem. I step on a connected scale each morning and things like weight, bone density, fat storage, etc., gets uploaded automatically to my account. When I open the app, all that information is already there along with my sleep, steps, calories, etc., etc. For those companies that have been rocking the wearable world for years already, they understand that it’s about the full ecosystem not one or two unconnected devices.
But, the one thing I’ve noticed with any of these devices is the backend service always leaves something to be desired. Each has its more valuable areas, but each also suffers in one area or another. Look at Strava, for example. Strava is great for bicyclists, but, in my experienced opinion, isn’t great for runners. So, for Microsoft to participate here It truly can’t be about the hardware. Microsoft could add immediate value if it would focus more on making its Health platform the best available – something monumental enough that 3rd party services want to take part in.
Flat out – the company needs these partnerships for the hardware. Not just the one-way partnerships we see today that sync Microsoft Health data into remote services like MyFitnessPal or Strava. Imagine being able to keep your expensive Garmin Fenix 3 fitness watch, snag a Fitbit Aria scale, and then have Microsoft Health bring all the information together in a central place. And, then later when you decide to switch fitness hardware vendors, you don’t also have to switch entire ecosystems. You just tell Microsoft Health the device you’re currently using and its makes the appropriate accommodations.
If Microsoft could produce a truly desirable backend Health service and supporting app, I’d be willing to pay to take part – and I’m positive there are others who aren’t Band owners – that are using the Garmin’s and the Fitbit’s – that would love to try something better that what they are current being offered. Here’s a thought – if you buy and use a Microsoft Band (or, *ahem* Surface Watch), you get a complimentary Health account. If you use a Garmin, Fitbit, or any other hardware device that can connect with Microsoft Health, you pay $5 a month.
You’re probably thinking that this sounds a lot like Runtastic or MapMyFitness. But even those services have their own specific drawbacks. And, as each service gets acquired by a larger entity (example, MapMyFitness by Under Armor), the uniqueness and openness of each one is starting to disappear quickly. These companies are all coming to the same conclusion that to win this industry it has to be about the fitness ecosystem. If they can get a customer hooked into their devices ecosystem they can sell them workout clothes and running shoes. Under Armor is a perfect example. The company continually cross-promotes its clothes, devices, and services and if you buy into the single ecosystem, you’re stuck. And at the end of the day, these companies really don’t care about your fit value, they just want to sell you things.
Unless there’s some earth shattering industry event, Microsoft is not going to win the fitness industry with the Band. As much as I love my Microsoft Band and believe the features are strong enough to compete, I have to be realistic. There’s a very real chance that, like many of you, I’ll be wearing a non-Microsoft fitness wearable in the future. But, that shouldn’t count Microsoft out.
I think in some respects Microsoft lost the original focus which was to create a proof of concept for its sensors and platform. A surge in Band popularity might have given it false hope. I think the original approach was the right one. Just create an ecosystem that can’t be ignored – that everyone wants to emulate – and invite all 3rd party hardware to participate.