With the release of its fitness-tracking Band earlier this week, Microsoft became the latest tech giant to delve into the young but growing fitness data market. Adorned with 10 sensors, the Band is one of the most comprehensive fitness trackers out there, and Microsoft is not bashful about its ambitions for the project.
“It’s really designed to do two things: have people live healthier and be more productive … and get some of the most accurate data that you can possibly get,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s vice president of Devices and Services, told The Verge.
Mehdi’s emphasis on data signals a shift in the market. Fitness tracking pioneers like Fitbit and Jawbone emphasized their hardware and software equally: The Fitbit band worked only in tandem with the Fitbit app. Newcomers such as Microsoft are taking a different approach. What’s important about Microsoft’s fitness offering isn’t the Band, but Health, its mobile fitness platform that works on Windows Phone, iOS, and Android devices. The goal is to gather as much data as possible, so while Band is the device best tailored for Health, the platform will accept data from other devices and apps. Google’s Fit and Apple’s HealthKit platforms work in a similar fashion.
So it might be a misnomer to say Apple, Google, and Microsoft are now in the fitness-tracking business; instead, they’re in the health-data business. Sure, the U.S. is experiencing a fitness boom, but there are only so many joggers in a country where a third of adults are obese. So instead of focusing on products for runners hoping to improve their mile times, Microsoft and its cohorts are wanting to collect and disperse as much health data as possible.
Companies such as Walgreens and The Hartford are already supplementing employee health programs with data from fitness trackers. Doing so incentivises healthy behavior and gives wellness providers more data on employee activity.
“Not only do you get a cool gadget, but the data from it can help people change their behavior to live a more healthy lifestyle,” which in turn reduces a company’s health-care costs, says Angela McIntyre, a wearables analyst with Gartner.
It’s not just health-care providers and insurance companies who might want the information. McIntyre says gyms, diet companies, and athletic retailers could use the data to better understand consumer trends.
Fitness trackers can provide valuable health insights, but at this point they probably won’t do so for those who most need help. Personal income is a strong determinant of an individual’s health, and wearables aren’t exactly cheap: Microsoft’s band costs $199, and most other models cost around $100. Thus, says Lynne Dunbrack, an analyst with IDC Health Insights, early adopters are a wealthy, self-serving population: fast people looking to get faster, thin people looking to get thinner, strong people looking to get stronger.
“So while wearable technology might help to get affluent consumers who like using the latest technology and gadgets to step away from their laptops and get walking, it’s not going to solve the real challenge of addressing all socioeconomic cohorts,” Dunbrack wrote in an email, “unless the devices either come down appreciably in price or are given away for free in programs designed to target middle- to lower-income consumers.”
Fitness bands providing consistent, valuable data is also contingent on people actually wearing them. In a recent IDC survey, a third of respondents who purchased a fitness band had stopped wearing it, often because they lost interest in tracking their fitness metrics, found it uncomfortable, or lost it.
Losing the bands is another hurdle to helping low-income people improve their health, Dunbrack says. Fitness trackers are expensive enough that if a low- or middle-income individual actually purchases one, they might not purchase another if the original is lost.
The goals Medhi laid out aren’t outlandish. Microsoft declined the opportunity to comment on its plans for the Band and the data it gathers, but there are certainties about the future of tech giants improving societal health: the programs and devices they offer have to be diverse, cheap, and commonplace to be effective.