Microsoft Mulls a Smartwatch; Here Are the Company’s Strengths and Weaknesses

If smartwatches become the next big thing in tech, Microsoft apparently doesn't want to be left out.

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Jared Newman / Microsoft / TIME Tech Illustration

If smartwatches become the next big thing in tech, Microsoft apparently doesn’t want to be left out.

Citing supply-chain executives, the Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft is working on designs for a touch-enabled watch. Microsoft reportedly asked suppliers in Asia to ship components for a potential device earlier this year. Still, it’s unclear if Microsoft will actually go ahead with the product.

In lieu of any hard details, all we can do is think about the advantages Microsoft would have, and the hurdles it would face, if it wants to bring a smartwatch to market.

Here are some strengths that come to mind, based on what we already know about Windows Phone:

Modern Style Is Watch-Friendly

The tile-based design of Windows Phone and Windows 8 seems tailor-made for a smartwatch. Users could set up a Live Tile or two that would show weather, time or other basic information. More tiles could fill the screen as notifications roll in.

Some Third-Party Apps Are Ready Already

One of the neatest features of Windows Phone is the way it lets you control third-party apps by voice. For instance, you can ask your tip-calculator app to crunch some numbers, or tell the Toggle app to control various phone settings. These types of commands would translate beautifully to a smartwatch, where touchscreen controls aren’t as feasible. Neither iOS nor Android support this level of voice commands for third-party apps, so Microsoft is ahead of the pack.

No Fragmentation Here

Compared with Google’s Android, Microsoft has tighter control over the software that goes onto Windows Phones. That means the company could guarantee a consistent smartwatch experience, whether your Windows Phone was made by HTC, Samsung or Nokia. You can’t say the same for Android, especially considering Samsung has plans to build its own smartwatch.

Digital-Wallet Building Blocks

Although adoption is slow-going, Microsoft’s Wallet for Windows Phone provides a way to pay with credit or debit by tapping your phone, and to store loyalty cards that can be scanned by bar code. This type of functionality could really take off on a smartwatch, as it would let you pay for stuff without ever reaching into your pockets. Microsoft already has the pieces in place.

And for weaknesses:

No Virtual Assistant to Speak of

Microsoft is behind Google Now and Appleā€™s Siri for virtual assistant-type services. Sure, you can search by voice on a Windows Phone, and you can dictate a note or a text message, but you can’t set alarms, schedule appointments or create an entire e-mail with voice only, as you can with Siri. Windows Phone also isn’t as proactive as Google Now, which can tell you about traffic on your next commute, or feed you information about upcoming trips. Virtual assistants would likely be at the heart of any smartwatch efforts from Apple and Google, so Microsoft will have to build out its own service if it wants to keep up.

Limited Hardware Experience

With its Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets, Microsoft has at least shown that it can make interesting hardware on its own. What isn’t clear, however, is whether Microsoft can lead the way on bringing entirely new technologies to market. If smartwatches become a big hit, it’ll likely be thanks to curved displays, which would allow for much slicker designs than the current crop of watches. Apple is reportedly eyeing curved displays for its own watches, and if history’s any indication, the company could prepay for the technology to guarantee a healthy supply at low prices. Samsung has its own curved-display tech in the making. Would Microsoft be willing to place a big bet on similar technology for a smartwatch of its own?

The Windows Phone App Problem

Windows Phone only makes up a small fraction of the market, especially in the U.S. where it accounts for about 3% of smartphones sold. As a result, app makers have been slower to support the platform, or have avoided it entirely. A smartwatch from Microsoft would run into the same issues; it’s possible that the latest and greatest apps would go to Apple’s platform and to Android first.

Keep in mind that it’s still early days for the smartwatch market, and the major tech players aren’t exactly rushing to get products out. Microsoft could bring some killer features and concepts to the smartwatch craze, but it also has some work to do.