Four months after it soft-launched the Microsoft Band fitness wearable and Microsoft Health online service, Microsoft is delivering the first major updates to each. The bad news: The firm is still not addressing ongoing availability issues for Microsoft Band, which was only sold briefly and sporadically in late 2014. But it says it remains committed to the device and will have more to share soon.
I spoke recently with Microsoft general manager of new devices Matt Barlow about this week’s major updates.
“Microsoft Band was originally available only in limited quantities, as part of a measured launch,” he told me. “Since then, we’ve been building out the experiences and products with feedback from our customers, potential customers and partners. So instead of going big at launch, we’ve been able to get a ton of feedback that we’re using to build improvements into the products.”
This week, we’re seeing the first significant updates to both Microsoft Band and Microsoft Health, updates that Barlow says will deliver new insights about users’ health and fitness, provide a long-awaited web app, add new Band features such as explicit support for cycling, and provide integration with more online services, including Microsoft HealthVault.
So let’s take a look at each.
One of the big goals for Microsoft Band is that it will collect a ton of data and then use the machine learning technologies in Microsoft Health’s Azure back-end to deliver what Microsoft calls “insights” about users’ fitness and health. These insights are currently not fully realized, and even this week’s updates won’t do much to help Band provide users with what I think of as proactive guidance around optimizing their activities. But Barlow says these updates will “give users better views of the data, and help them take action in meaningful ways.”
Today, you can examine some of the data that Microsoft Band collects in the Microsoft Health on your smart phone. (There are versions for Windows Phone, Android and iPhone.) This week, finally, Microsoft is adding a Microsoft Health web portal as well, so you can examine your health and fitness information from any web browser. And thanks to the expanded onscreen real estate, this dashboard will provide a lot more information that is feasible on a smart phone screen, including new observations, more detailed charts, and better trend information over wider periods of time.
This new web dashboard is just “a first step,” Barlow told me, and Microsoft will quickly update it with additional information, including planned observations for calories and sleep.
For calories, you will be able to observe your caloric output in bar charts by day, week, or month, and see the differences in calories burned by exercise or sleep. “If most of your calories burned come from sleep,” Barlow explained, “maybe you’re not exercising enough.” But this cuts to my primary criticism of Band and Health: as the user of these products, I shouldn’t need to “observe” this. Microsoft Band or Health should inform me of this fact and prod me to exercise more.
For sleep, Microsoft Health will start showing you the average amount of time it takes you to fall asleep and the average amount of time it takes you to wake up. And in this case, it will show the differences between the work week and the weekends, so you can see whether you have sleep challenges on busy days and then plan your schedule better. Again, manually.
The Microsoft Health web portal will also provide a “Bests” screen that is sort of a hero trophy case showing detailed daily, weekly, and month views that aggregate the information collected by Band and show trends.
“We know people will want more information,” Barlow said. “So we’ll be updating Microsoft Health on the web daily, weekly and monthly as we get feedback.”
As part of Band’s soft launch, Barlow say that Microsoft will “try new fitness and productivity features, and then improve them or kill them” based on whether users are actually taking advantage of them. And it has some feature updates for both fitness and productivity.
First, the company is adding cycling tracking to Microsoft Band courtesy of a new Bike tile—similar to the Run tile that shipped with the product originally—and a new set of cycling guided workouts. This came about based on feedback: Microsoft discovered that users really liked the tiles that are tailored to particular activities and the guided workouts. So this expansion provides cyclists with something in each category.
“This is a packaged vertical for cycling,” Barlow explained. “It can track rides indoors or out, incorporates heart rate monitoring that is tuned to the activity so its accurate, can measure elevation and gain if you’re riding outdoors, records duration, distance, and calories burned, and provides custom splits, like the Run tile.” It also uses the Band’s GPS sensor to optionally map your ride so you can then share the route with others.
The Bike tile will also measure your recovery time, as it does with other exercises, and provide trends over time. And there are five new guided workouts designed specifically for cyclists, including sprints, hour of sweat, and so on.
Looking ahead, Microsoft is thinking of adding other packaged verticals to Band, including hiking and skiing. “We’re looking at everything,” Barlow said.
In addition to cycling, Microsoft is also adding some interesting productivity features to Band in this update.
“Users love the glanceable notifications on Microsoft Band,” Barlow explained. “But they’ve asked for two things: they would like an easier way to read the details of incoming text messages and emails. And they want more elegant ways to respond.”
To address the first concern, Microsoft is adding a “quick read” feature to Microsoft Band that displays one word on the screen at a time for text messages and email messages. You can then push a button to move forward in the message one word at a time, letting you read a few sentences more easily on the go.
Microsoft’s response to the second concern is fascinating, and it applies only to users who are using a Windows Phone 8.1 handset with their Band. (If this proves popular it will add support for Android and iOS later.) It is providing an onscreen virtual keyboard. Yes, really.
“I know people are going to wonder, ‘is this even usable?” Barlow told me. “But proximity and touch technology and Windows Phone’s WordFlow keyboard make it work. The accuracy is uncanny, you can type very quickly by just tapping. It’s really a delighter moment when you try it the first time.”
Sensing my disbelief, Barlow said “hey, we’re trying, they’re options. Users can just ignore it if they don’t want it.”
Today, Microsoft Band and Microsoft Health are interconnected in that if you use one, you have to use the other. But the long-term goal for these platforms is that they not be interdependent. In other words, you should be able to use Microsoft Band with any service(s) you want. And you should be able to use Microsoft Health with any devices and other services you want. To those ends, Microsoft is evolving both platforms, and is working with partners to make it happen.
“Since we entered this space, our goal has always been to embrace apps and services outside of Microsoft Health and Band,” Barlow said. “In this update, we’re adding deeper integration with partners, so that we can comingle better with other services. But later this month, we will introduce an SDK so that third party developers can capitalize on the sensors and capabilities of Microsoft Band.” (Barlow noted that there are already “hacks” out there for Band, but that the SDK would be more open, formal and powerful.)
In this week’s update, Microsoft Band and Health will integrate with two more services: Map My Fitness, which offers an incredible range of running and walking routes, and Microsoft’s HealthVault, which lets you share your health and fitness data with health care providers. They will be available in the Connected Apps menu in the Microsoft Health app alongside the prior partners, RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal.
“Our long-term goal is that you can use any device with our software and services, and that our devices work with any service,” Barlow said. “We are in discussions with hardware partners now, and will have more news in the future. But the important thing to know is, we are an open platform. Our competition is our friends. And we care more about your health and fitness then what phone or device you use. You should not be tied to a certain phone or device platform.”
Amen to that.
As a reminder, I’ve written a free e-book called Microsoft Band Field Guide that explains everything you need to know about Microsoft’s fitness wearable and the Microsoft Health service. I will be updating this book this week to address the updates, but you can always find the most recent version on the Field Guide Books web site in PDF, MOBI and ePub formats.