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Will Microsoft's nerd goggles soar like an Eagle, or flop like a turkey?

Hello, HoloLens

Analysis Stone the crows! Rather than copying the early market leaders - as it has traditionally done - the modern era Microsoft is showing signs of calling trends correctly well in advance.

Only last week we were congratulating Microsoft on being the only platform provider to correctly call the wearables trend. That allowed it to avoid the bloodbath that is smartwatches today. Faced with the media and industry hype around Android Wear in March 2014, which was rushed to market to beat the Apple Watch (2015), Microsoft could have chosen create a new smartwatch platform - another SPOT. Or even make its own smartwatch.

But it chose not to. Microsoft identified that activity tracking was the most promising part of the wearables market, and focused on that. It would make a platform that was a decent wearable first, then carefully open it up so businesses and customers could add the features they wanted. It was a good call: activity, fitness and health - whatever you want to call it - are the only part of the wearables market showing any promise.

Alas, our congratulations came as part of an obituary for Microsoft’s only wearable, the Band, which was (as good as) killed last week, before it got to test the “rule of three”. (It used to be that being able to spot a trend was necessary, but not sufficient to guarantee success.

We don’t know if the Band 2.0 was cancelled because of potential deficiencies in the product itself, or its pricing, or a strategic shift, or simply that old Redmond favourite, political backstabbing. But we wonder if HoloLens will suffer the same fate.

HoloLens is finally available in the UK today, for enterprises and developers, some 19 months after it was first unveiled to the world. "Screw you Oculus and glassholes,” was how El Reg succinctly characterised HoloLens at the time.

With HoloLens, Microsoft has also carefully avoided much of the media and industry hype, sidestepped the obvious technical limitations, and designed it very carefully around practical use cases. HoloLens is Microsoft’s version of “nerd goggles”, for sure. But what Microsoft calls “mixed reality” isn’t a heavy duty immersive VR like HTC’s Vive, Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Sony’s PlayStation VR, tethered to a enormous PC or console. Nor is it an augmented reality wearable that you’re expected to tote around all the time, like Glass, either. It does both, but is neither. What HoloLens does is adds virtual “enhancements” to a real environment. Our verdict on the first demo back then was that HoloLens was "bloody marvelous” - with a Mars exploration where the user could peer under rocks stealing the show.

Get back, consumers

Obviously with a sticker price of £4,529 (or £2,719 for the headset only), HoloLens is a B2B proposition right now.

Those 19 months in public have been well spent. The SDK and tools are maturing. In today’s announcement, Microsoft mentions seven enterprises that are grappling with the goggles. Industrial design and customer service are cited by Audi, Airbus, Saab and early supporter and poster child NASA. Retail chain Lowe's Home Improvement has piloted a home modelling app that would reside in stores.

Nottingham University’s veteran Mixed Reality Lab has many more projects what indicate how HoloLens could be used. More will doubtless be trailed at Microsoft’s October 26th event.

Avoiding the consumer market here is very smart. Maybe it’s the only sensible option. Going head to head with Oculus would create a money pit that could absorb billions of dollars, and there’s no indication the AR/VR/MR consumer market is any more substantial than the console market (and probably much smaller, given the 10x difference in price). But is it sufficient?

That depends on the execution. Windows 3.x won not because it was better, or because anyone particularly liked it, but because it looked inevitable. Inevitability is something Microsoft was good at. As soon as businesses lashed up a quick and dirty Windows front end, and execs started to paste the results into Excel, Window was off and running. Looking back now, the winner of the ancient “OS wars” 25 years ago was never in doubt - the press kept up the fantasy just to make things more interesting.

At the time the Band launched, CEO Satya Nadella indicated that Band was more than a product. It was just a bunch of sensors, he said, and Microsoft was willing to license that bunch of sensors to other people. That could have made Microsoft’s wearable platform look inevitable, rather than just odd. Sadly, Microsoft seemed to forget it had ever made the pledge. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for HoloLens. Get the technology out there. ®

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