Exclusive: A Microsoft Smartwatch Is Coming
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.