The Case for Wearable Devices

The Case for Wearable Devices

Wearables are coming, just not from Microsoft

Related: Google Pushes Android into Watches

Over a decade after Microsoft pioneered the expansion of personal computing technology to tiny devices such as wristwatches, other companies have picked up the baton that will now make this technology mainstream. Although it's convenient—and a bit cheap—to constantly harp on Microsoft's inability to follow through on a promising initiative of the past, this time it's not the software giant's fault.

The reasons for this are many, but I think we can distill it down to the most pertinent few. Micro technology simply wasn't advanced enough to deliver the late 2002 promises of then Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. And more importantly, the focus today has changed somewhat to these so-called wearables that work in tandem with a smartphone, a device the target audience already owns.

Yes, prospective customers for Microsoft's Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) wouldn't have had too much of a hard time envisioning the power and sophistication of the modern smartphone. After all, the PDAs of the day were logical predecessors. But less obvious, I think, is the impact these devices have had on personal computing usage patterns. Although it's easy to look back on what happened and understand these changes retroactively, no one—not even Microsoft—was ready for the changes that did occur.

Related: New SPOT Watches Available... For Some Reason

Rereading my "Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) Preview" is like traveling back in time virtually, in that I can remember the generalities but not the specifics. But as it was originally presented, Microsoft's SPOT wasn't so much about wearables as it was about shrinking the personal computing platform down in size both physically and virtually. That it is, SPOT was simply an evolution of the work that Microsoft had first done with Windows CE, applied in this case to the .NET-era technology of the day. So SPOT just targeted small things. A wristwatch, yes, but also smart alarm clocks, refrigerator magnets, key chains, and more.

Indeed, it's perhaps telling that Mr. Gates' first public demonstration of SPOT, at the 2002 Fall COMDEX trade show, involved a smart alarm clock. The idea was to expand on the firm's vision of a "computer on every desk," evolving it to something akin to "a computer in every object in your house." The firm got that devices, and device proliferation, were the future. They just didn't get the details right.

The online services infrastructure that would be required to make SPOT viable didn't exist in 2002/2003, so Microsoft would have to build it. Although some people carried around then-powerful PDAs in their pockets, most didn't. Cell phones of the day weren't typically connected to data networks, and those few data networks that did exist were slow and expensive. Heck, Wi-Fi was just starting to take off: A year earlier, Windows XP launched as the first version of Windows to natively support Wi-Fi, and that support was so immature and unsafe that the system would just blindly connect to unprotected wireless networks. Hilarity ensued. (And so did Trustworthy Computing. And Windows XP Service Pack 2.)

Basically, the painfully unpowerful SPOT devices that would eventually appear in 2003 would be standalone devices, accessing whatever services that Microsoft provided. Weather. Sport scores. That kind of thing. It was considered revolutionary that the time display on the first devices—watches and alarm clocks—would always be correct thanks to this connectivity. This seems obvious today, something not even worth mentioning.

And now a decade has passed. Microsoft missed the mobile boat—outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer called it his biggest mistake, and his biggest regret—while the firm focused on propping up Windows. Annual smartphone sales are three times larger than those of PCs, and growing, while tablet sales will surpass those of PCs as soon as this year en route to those latter devices becoming the mainstream PC replacement. Most smartphones and tablets do not run Windows, and they're simpler and less technically complex than the devices they're replacing. This is a revolution.

So, it's not surprising that our new personal computing overlords are embracing wearable computing. Nor is it surprising that the direction they're taking makes sense for today, just as what Microsoft was doing in 2002 made sense for that day. These wearable computing devices aren't usually standalone devices. That is, all but the least sophisticated of them—like FitBit-style health trackers—are designed to be used as companions for the smartphones everyone uses.

Those smartphones run Google's Android because that's what real users have overwhelmingly; 80 percent of all smartphones sold in 2013 ran Android. And so we see the major platform makers —Google and Samsung—innovating in the wearables space. And Apple, which commands most of the rest of the market for smartphones, is rumored to be working on its own wearables initiative. Here comes the iWatch.

Microsoft missed the boat on mobile, but what's less well understood is how the ramifications of that mistake impact other parts of its business. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates explained that Microsoft's successes in the past, and its comfort level from atop the personal computing heap, let it experiment more than it can afford to do today.

"The fact is, search generates a lot of money," Gates said. "And when you have a lot of money, it allows you to go down a lot of dead ends. We had that luxury at Microsoft in the Nineties. You can pursue things that are way out there. We did massive interactive ­TV stuff, we did digital-wallet stuff. A lot of it was ahead of its time, but we could afford it."

As the primary technology platform maker today, Google can afford it. So, too, can Samsung, which is the leading smartphone maker by a wide margin. (Though Samsung's decision to base its own wearables on its Tizen OS, and not Google's Android, should generate a bit of drama in the months and years ahead.)

Microsoft? Not so much. As it transitions to the new normal, Microsoft has two general options. It can continue to push its largely unpopular mobile platforms on a disinterested public, or it can sit out this generation—a possibility ex-CEO Ballmer recently suggested—and hope to lead the next wave, whatever that may be. Either of these is an expensive proposition. My expectation is that Microsoft will simply try to do both.

And yes, Microsoft is of course looking into wearables. It can't escape its long history as a platforms maker. And it must be unbearable to watch other platforms—inferior in their own ways, and with drastically inferior developer tools—take off in the market. But ultimately, today's wearables make sense given the realities of today's world, just as Microsoft's inability to compete in this new emerging market makes sense too.

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