Microsoft is reportedly working on designs for a touch-enabled smart watch, a move one analyst called a "snipe hunt" that would distract it from the critical chore of getting Windows 8 off the ground.
Another expert, however, said Microsoft needs to keep up with the technology Joneses, and is certainly able to do more than one thing at a time.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft has purchased components, including 1.5-in. displays, that could be used to build smart watches.
If accurate, it would add Microsoft to the list of companies that are investigating, prototyping or even planning to launch wrist-wearable devices. Google is allegedly developing a smart watch that would be tied to Android smartphones; Samsung, the world's largest seller of Android-powered handsets, is purportedly doing the same.
Apple has also been linked to the category, with talk circulating two months ago of a possible "iWatch" that could be a smartphone companion or a stand-alone device.
"It's important that Microsoft explore this," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "At some point, we'll have wearable devices, and companies in [mobile] need to be playing with the idea."
Saying he would be shocked if Microsoft was not looking at smart watches, Gottheil said the Redmond, Wash. company is large enough to devote resources to the project. "I don't buy into the idea that companies can do only one thing at a time," he said. "But there is a difference between [researching and prototyping] and making an announcement that says, 'We're going to kick butt in this category.'"
Gottheil also argued that Microsoft's core business -- to serve as a software and development platform for OEMs, the "original equipment manufacturers" that design, make and sell hardware that runs Windows -- demanded that the company plan for wearable devices.
But Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy disagreed. Strongly.
"Microsoft cannot waste its focus on 'snipe-hunts.' It has its hands full getting Windows 8 traction in phones, tablets and even personal computers," Moorhead said. "They have a potential disaster on their hands with Windows 8, and could lose the hearts and minds on client computing. [A smart watch] would be a distraction they can't afford, and suck resources from other projects. It's not like they can take people from Server and Tools and have them work on a smart watch."
Windows 8, as Moorhead noted, has had little success thus far in tablets, and the new operating system, according to research firm IDC, has not only provided no uptick in PC sales, but has hurt shipments of traditional desktops and notebooks. Consumers, IDC said last week when it claimed first-quarter PC shipments were down 14% year-over-year, remain confused about the OS and discouraged by the higher prices of touch-enabled systems, where Windows 8 shines.
Moorhead acknowledged that Microsoft needs to be in the wearable device game. "Strategically, Microsoft does need to participate in the recently-booming wearable ecosystem or potentially be left behind," he said. "But what this sheds light on is just how far behind Microsoft is and how much ground they must make up."
As in other device categories -- tablets, for one -- Microsoft has dabbled in smart watches before. More than a decade ago, it launched the Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) project, which ended up on a small number of wristwatches starting in 2004. SPOT-based watches were discontinued in 2008, and Microsoft pulled the plug on the underlying FM radio-based network service in early 2012.
"There's a long-term market opportunity for Microsoft here," said Moorhead. "But timing is everything. Like tablets or even smartphones, Microsoft was too early in smart watches. Now they'd again be playing catch-up."
Instead of dabbling in an area where they would likely arrive later than rivals, Microsoft should focus all energies on Windows 8, particularly its Windows Blue project, a name for both a 2013 update to the struggling OS and for a new development and release strategy that aims to refresh its software on a more faster tempo.
"Blue is the Windows 8 they should have shipped to begin with," said Moorhead. "They needed it a year ago, but if I see a two-year span of adding features, I can become a believer [in Windows 8]."
Minus success in Windows 8, Moorhead continued, Microsoft's future looks gloomy, smart watches or not. "I don't even want to think about what happens if Windows 8 doesn't work out," he said.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].
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