Microsoft introduced a fascinating new gadget last week.
The watchlike Microsoft Band enters the nascent market for wearable devices to track your activity, display information from a phone and sync with online services.
You can map your run with the band’s GPS radio, check your heartbeat, view messages, get a report on the quality of your sleep and pay for a Starbucks coffee by waving it near the cash register.
Drawing on advanced research and its work with the Xbox Kinect motion sensor, Microsoft has designed a band that can figure out the type of activity you’re doing by analyzing the mix of data flowing from its sensors.
For instance, instead of guessing the number of steps you take based on the motion it senses, the band cross-references your progress with GPS to precisely calculate your gait.
Microsoft also is embracing technodiversity nowadays, so the band works with apps made for iOS and Android phones, as well as Windows Phones.
Yet the most striking thing about the Microsoft Band is the company’s timing.
Instead of futzing around and debating the merits until someone else owns the market, Microsoft pounced just as the market for wearable devices is starting to take off. It started the project three years ago, but seems to have rushed the launch to make this holiday season.
This year marks a turning point when wearable computers move beyond early adopters to become mainstream products, according to research firm IDC. It expects 19 million of these devices will be sold this year — three times more than in 2013. By 2018, sales are expected to grow to 112 million a year.
It’s too soon to say whether Microsoft will win a big share and be a leader in the age of wearable computing.
But at this point it looks like the company has learned from mistakes it made with smartphones, MP3 players and tablet computers and has a far better sense of when to catch a rising wave.
With devices like the Zune, Kin and stillborn Courier tablet, Microsoft developed a reputation for jumping in too soon or too late, or letting internal turf battles stifle promising new products.
Investors seem to think Chief Executive Satya Nadella has turned things around and Microsoft is on the right track, based on earnings growth and outlook.
Most everyone else will look at new products such as the Microsoft Band for evidence the company has a chance and can pose a serious challenge to Apple, Samsung and other gadget makers luring us into the future.
So instead of just launching another software platform to gather and crunch health and wellness data, and hoping that partner companies build nice devices to show it off, Microsoft also built a slick, flagship device and launched it alongside the software platform.
This seemed to work.
The band generated lots of buzz last week, even though the bigger announcement was really the launch of the accompanying Microsoft Health software platform. It’s running on the Azure cloud-computing network, which will store and analyze data collected from the Microsoft Band and all sorts of other fitness devices. This data can also be shared with other online health services.
Also different was Microsoft’s decision to release the gadget and the software before it had figured out ways to make them complement its big, established businesses.
The band and apps work with HealthVault — the company’s online health data service some health-care providers use — but it doesn’t yet have a big tie-in with Windows or Office or even Xbox, the group that spawned the project.
“This is a real pivot change for us,” said Matt Barlow, a manager on the project. “We talked with Satya quite a bit about it and said, ‘Hey, we can wait for a year to two years and try to line everything up or we can say what’s most important.’ ’’
They decided it’s most important to get into the market quickly with a product that has enough of a wow-factor to get started.
“Getting people using it and providing feedback is going to shape what the bigger and bolder experiences are going to be, versus having a bunch of people in a room taking a guess about things,” Barlow said.
That approach tells me that even though Microsoft is stepping up its gadget game, the company is trying to be more like Google — which has a history of releasing products early, in “beta” mode — than Apple.
Either that, or it just doesn’t have the luxury of time if it wants to keep pace with this next phase of personal computing.