Why is this? In both cases, by the time Microsoft responded, Apple had already established a huge beachhead. Devices using Microsoft products had to either risk appearing as copies or be pushed to more of a niche focus (41-megapixel cameras, anyone?) in the name of differentiation.
A head of speculation now points to a watch as the next target of Apple's ecosystem expansion.
A head of speculation now points to a watch as the next target of Apple's ecosystem expansion. As Google understands well with Google Glass, wearables represent perhaps the last opportunity short of implantables (or perhaps "tattoos" like the kind MC10 is creating) to intercept the smartphone as a ubiquitous personal digital presence.
Here, too, Microsoft was an early believer. Its MSN Direct / SPOT watches combined wireless connectivity and glanceable information in an era before today's high-speed wireless data, high smartphone penetration, low-powered Bluetooth and sunlight-optimized displays that characterize the current crop of smartwatches.
There have been occasional whispers that Microsoft is indeed working on a modern smartwatch, but to get it out a year or two after an Apple watch hits will be too late. Clearly, whatever Apple's working on must be a significant departure from the focus of the dozen or so smartwatches that many Engadget readers have surely helped fund on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
While products such as the Zune HD and Surface may have flopped commercially, they represented solid -- certainly thoughtful -- designs.
While products such as the Zune HD and Surface may have flopped commercially, they represented solid -- certainly thoughtful -- designs. Microsoft needs to drive that level of design into a watch or other wearable that plants the seeds of what it can claim is the post-smartphone era. It doesn't even have to be much more complex than something that would display select Live Tiles from a Windows Phone. Microsoft could release apps to make it compatible with iOS and Android, but of course it would work best with Windows Phones and PCs. A successful smartwatch would certainly have a halo effect on smartphones.
In corporate software, Microsoft was once the master of leveraging one product to sell another. Office helped sell Windows and Windows clients paved the way for Windows servers. But for the last decade in consumer hardware, it's been Apple that's executed well in that respect. The iPod helped sell Macs and the iPhone paved the way for the iPad. If it doesn't establish a wearable now, the SPOT watch may join the Tablet PC and Windows Mobile phones as categories where Microsoft got to the dock early, but ultimately missed the boat.
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.