The latest entry into the fitness wearables market -- the $199 Microsoft Band -- is now on sale, both online and at Microsoft Stores. Upon announcing its new fitness-tracking wristband Wednesday, Microsoft also unveiled its Health platform, a cloud-based service for managing and analyzing health- and fitness-related data from wearables and other devices and services.
It's unusual for Microsoft to announce a new product that is immediately available for purchase. However, the move stands to give a boost to Microsoft's position in the wearables market ahead of the planned launch of the Apple Watch in early 2015.
At $199, the Microsoft Band is also considerably cheaper than the coming Apple Watch, with a planned starting price of $349. Unlike Apple's device, Microsoft's wearable is compatible with Windows, Android and iOS devices.
GPS, Heart-Rate and UV Sensors
An elastic plastic band with an adjustable clasp, the Microsoft Band is meant to be wearable around the clock and runs for two days on a single charge, according to the device's spec sheet. Its 10 built-in sensors include a GPS, an optical heart-rate sensor, a microphone, a gyrometer and an ambient light sensor.
Microsoft says the Band will let users better understand their daily calorie burns and sleep patterns, monitor their step and running distances, set daily fitness goals and receive exercise prompts and guided workouts from fitness partners such as Gold's Gym, Shape and Men's Fitness.
In addition to the fitness-related apps, the Microsoft Band provides the Cortana digital assistant, wrist-based text messaging, e-mail monitoring, and weather and financial updates. Wearers can also set the device to operate on watch mode for a continuous date and time display, and can use the band to make quick, credit-card and cash-free purchases at Starbucks.
Health with Big Data, Machine Learning
Data from the Microsoft Band can be stored and analyzed on Microsoft's new Health platform. The platform also integrates with several other fitness-related apps, including UP by Jawbone, MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper.
Microsoft said it will "soon" add a feature allowing users to connect Health with its HealthVault platform, allowing people to share their data with medical providers if they so choose. Additional capabilities developed by either Microsoft Research or development partners will also be on the way, the company said.
The market for wearable health and fitness devices is still in its early days, although shipments this year have increased by nearly 200 percent compared with 2013, according to a recent report from PwC's Health Research Institute. Interest in wearables is growing not only among consumers, but among employers and health-related companies as well, the report noted.
We reached out to Paul D'Alessandro, principal and customer experience leader at PwC's Health Industries practice, to learn more about where the wearable market might be heading.
"Right now, the primary audience may not be the folks that need them the most -- they tend to be people who are already active on a daily basis," D'Alessandro told us via e-mail. "The devices also appeal to the sandwich generation that are busy holding down their own jobs while having to take care of their elderly parents.
"The potential is there for wider use by those who need the technology the most -- patients with multiple chronic conditions. For large-scale adoption to happen, we need further evolution of data through analytics to help understand beyond just the activity level to facilitate new forms of clinical engagement."