Microsoft is the latest technology giant preparing to jump into the wearables market, with plans to offer a sensor-rich smartwatch that measures heart rate and synchs with iPhones, Android phones and Windows Phones, Forbes has learned.
It’s a surprising development in the ongoing conversation about wearables that till now has been dominated by Samsung and Apple.
The device will draw on optical engineering expertise from Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect division to continuously measure heart rate through the day and night, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the company’s plans, while the battery will last for two days, roughly on par with Samsung’s Gear Fit.
The timeline for the watch’s release date is unclear but Microsoft could be gunning for as soon as this summer.
Crucially, it appears the smartwatch won’t just tie in with Windows Phone devices, but will also work with both iPhones and Android smartphones.
A spokesman for Microsoft would not comment on the details. “We have nothing to share,” he said.
Still, early indications suggest the smartwatch may already be a step ahead from current fitness trackers like the Gear Fit, which requires users to turn on its heart-rate monitor. Microsoft’s device will track continuous heart rate over the course of a person’s day, sources say. The watch will look similar to the Samsung Gear Fit and feature a full-color touch screen about the size of half a stick of gum, positioned on the inside of the wearer’s wrist. The unorthodox screen-placing appears to be aimed at making it easier and more private to view notifications.
A cross-platform smartwatch would represent another bold move by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to create a product that works across other rival platforms, not just Windows. His first public unveiling of a product in April was of a suite of Microsoft Office products that worked, for the first time, on Apple’s iPad.
Microsoft’s software and services need to be available on “all devices,” Nadella also said at a conference earlier this week. “It’s time for us to build the next big thing.”
While going cross platform may diminish the power of Microsoft’s software ecosystem, it does make business sense: Windows Phone has struggled to make a dent in smartphones and is forecast to have a 3.5% share of the global smartphone market by the end of 2014, while Android will dominate with 80.2% and Apple’s iOS with 14.8%.
“Microsoft needs to run across Apple and Android platforms,” said a recent research note from Nomura analyst Rick Sherlund which collated advice from industry peers on how Nadella should “fix” Microsoft. The company, which derived about half of its 2013 sales of $77.8 billion from Windows and Office software products, needs to make shifts as fundamental as IBM’s move towards becoming a services business, Sherlund said.
Moving into the wearables space would barely register on Microsoft’s bottom line for some time, but the market is just starting to heat up, with Apple poised to announce its first iWatch later this year and Samsung expected to launch a smartwatch in the summer that can independently make calls. Wearable device companies like Fitbit are Jawbone are meanwhile commanding valuations in the billions of dollars, with Jawbone having recently become the subject of acquisition rumors.
Though Microsoft’s hardware products have a spotty history, executives will be hoping a sensor-rich smartwatch can replicate the success of the company’s Xbox and Kinect divisions, rather than the failure of the Zune music player and struggles of Microsoft’s Surface tablet.
Optical engineers from Microsoft’s Kinect division, designers and data scientists have created a software platform to go with the smartwatch that will correlate data from the device’s sensors, according to sources, giving a more accurate read on heart rate and fitness.
Samsung Electronics is currently making a Big-Data push for health and wearables too. On Wednesday the South Korean company revealed further details on its open biometric data platform SAMI, which developers can access later this year to correlate data from wearable devices like the Gear, Fitbit and Jawbone.
Microsoft may want to do something similar with the data its smartwatch generates about wearers, perhaps taking advantage of insights in can glean from Outlook email and calendar traffic.
The company also appears to be going more mainstream with its first wearables play than initially thought. Reports surfaced two years ago showing Microsoft had been granted a patent for a wearable EMG device, and they suggested a band that senses muscle movements in the arm to control a wearer’s mobile devices.
Microsoft in 2012 was also rumored to be working on a wearable fitness accessory that tied with the Kinect Play Fit service, codenamed Joule. Then in March of this year the company reportedly spent $150 million on IP-related patents for headsets and a watch-like device from the Osterhout Design Group.
It now appears that Microsoft is working on a device worn on the wrist, and one that’s aimed at a much wider market: any fitness enthusiast with a smartphone, not just a device that works with the Kinect or Windows.
Being cross-platform might give a Microsoft an edge in retail outlets for carriers like Verizon and AT&T, the latter of which made $1 billion a year in revenue from selling wearables like the Fitbit and Jawbone, according to AT&T Mobility vice president David Garver. It might be easier for sales staff to pitch a Microsoft wearable as part of a contract bundle with any smartphone, or at least phones that aren’t made by Samsung or Apple. Verizon and AT&T are under increasing pressure from T-Mobile to find creative ways to keep contract prices competitive.
Continuous heart rate could also be an attractive sell for fitness enthusiasts and those in the health care space. Dr. Michael Blum, an associate vice chancellor for informatics at UCSF, says the rise of continuous biometric monitoring through wearables will lead to a new class of data for healthcare professionals to parse through, which Blum calls “novel vital signs.” Once basic measurements like heart rate are validated as accurate, clinicians from the health care space can start to take that data more seriously, he added.
On its own, though, some say measuring heart rate may not be a strong enough sell for wearables just yet, at least not until devices can make a value judgement or compelling correlations with that data.
By itself the data won’t necessarily help a wearable device pass the so-called “turnaround test,” says Mike Lee, co-founder of the popular nutrition tracking app MyFitnessPal. This test refers to a situation where someone gets half-way to a destination before realizing they’ve forgotten their device at home. If they turn back to get it, the device has passed the test.
Most people would turn around for their smartphones, but fewer would do the same for wearables or even the few like the Gear Fit that measure heart rate. ”The key is what you do with that data,” says Lee, “and how you bring it back to consumers.”
The Catch 22 for Microsoft and any software firm selling new insights into a person’s physical body, is that drawing truly useful conclusions also takes them down a slippery slope towards diagnosis — and the specter of being regulated by the FDA.
Third parties who are already regulated might be the answer in this case, and with a fitness-related smartwatch project, Microsoft could conceivably draw on its healthcare joint venture with General Electric, called Caradigm.
The population health company, which is 50% owned by Microsoft, currently works with hospitals and doctors to manage patient health data and analyze risks like re-admissions. It’s unclear if Microsoft would want Caradigm to play a role in the future of its smartwatch, or if Microsoft will want to work with another regulated third party to offer fitness suggestions or light forms of diagnosis to the band’s future users.
The bigger picture is that with a continuous heart rate monitor, Microsoft would be moving wearable devices further ahead to “consumerized” healthcare. This is the trend in which people are increasingly circumventing the traditional health-care system with tools to diagnose themselves and, some argue, “own” their biometric data. (Ironically, it comes at a time when today’s technology-driven, sedentary lifestyle has also led to 2.1 billion people across the world being classed as overweight or obese, according to a study released today in the Lancent medical journal.)
In terms of self-diagnosis, people till now have simply Googled their ailments and followed a series of links to frightening articles about cancer. Now they can measure precise data about themselves and show it a machine, or another human being who may skirt the boundaries of the health care system.
For example, the online service HealthTap lets its more-than 1 million registered users post short, anonymous questions (limited to 150 characters) to a community of 40,000 doctors who can vote on each others’ answers. Users who pay a fee can upload their health records and other information to show those doctors.
Founder Ron Gutmann believes doctors of the future “will have to become data scientists” to properly analyze the stats coming in from multiple sources, such as heart rate and sleep data from wearable devices and nutrition data from apps like Runkeeper or MyFitnessPal. “Doctors will spend less time on the minutiae and spend more time on analyzing these streams of data,” he said.