How Windows Could Wreck a Microsoft ‘Smartwatch’

Will Microsoft really try to squeeze a Windows interface onto a tiny timepiece?

Rumors suggest that Microsoft’s Surface team is testing a prototype “smartwatch” crafted from aluminum.

“We understand Microsoft is testing prototypes with a modified version of Windows 8, with a focus on integrating the device with other Windows-powered devices,” The Verge reported July 15, citing unnamed sources familiar with the plans. However, it remains unclear how Microsoft would modify Windows 8 for a small timepiece screen, much less have it communicate in an effective way with other devices.

The Verge also cited reporting from AmongTech, which drew from its own unnamed sources to suggest that Microsoft’s “smartwatches” will include bodies made from “translucent aluminum” harder than glass, along with removable wristbands in different colors.

If the rumors are correct, it certainly makes sense for Microsoft’s Surface people to take over development of a “smartwatch.” Surface, a Windows 8 tablet with a removable keyboard that doubles as a screen cover, is the flagship hardware in Microsoft’s recent attempt to rebrand itself as a “devices and services” company; it stands to reason that the institutional knowledge accrued in developing Surface could come in handy on other projects.

But Microsoft also faces some challenges if it wants to break into the nascent “wearable computing” segment. The first, of course, is actually defining a “smartwatch.” Although every major technology company seems to have one in development—or claims to have one in development, at least—there are precious few details about what such devices will actually do once strapped to consumers’ wrists, besides tell time. Delivering notifications about email and text messages seems a likely bet, and it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that navigation and search capabilities could be added, but a timepiece’s tiny screen makes a broad range of functionality necessarily difficult to implement.

The second challenge is Microsoft’s longtime reliance—perhaps overreliance—on the Windows brand. For years, the majority of the company’s products have interlinked with its keystone operating system in some way; rumors have long persisted that some promising projects, such as the dual-screen Courier tablet, were drowned in the proverbial bathtub because they would have existed too far beyond the borders of the Windows franchise. Something like Windows Phone can share features, an overall aesthetic, and even apps with “main” Windows—but squeezing Windows onto a miniscule watch-screen, simply because corporate higher-ups dictate that This Should Be So, could turn out to be a disaster unless executed perfectly. (In this way, the second challenge connects with the first.)

The third challenge is—as always—Microsoft rivals such as Apple, which could have similar timepieces on store-shelves by the end of next year. Apple, for example, sees itself as a “mobile first” firm, with an army of engineers and designers to back that particular worldview up; tackling them in a whole new product category is a dangerous proposition for any company, even one backed with billions of dollars. Earlier this year, Citigroup analyst Oliver Chen estimated the global watch industry’s annual revenue at $60 billion a year, with gross margins of roughly 60 percent—and estimated that Apple could take $6 billion of that, if it chose to finally produce the much-rumored “iWatch.” Microsoft’s goal, if it’s also building a timepiece, is to take its own hefty portion of that.


Image: Microsoft