In these days before the official launch of the Apple Watch on April 24, and with Apple counting nearly a million pre-orders since last Friday, much of the tech world is abuzz with talk about the newest smartwatch to hit the market and the impact it could have on wearables as a genre. Although wearable devices have been on the market for some time, they have failed to garner any notable traction in the consumer market. The question remains as to whether the pricier, designer Apple Watch can be the catalyst for widespread adoption the way its predecessors were for smartphones and tablets and pave the way for greater integration of wearables in the enterprise.
The slow climb towards enterprise acceptance
Despite the current focus on smartwatches, the wearable form factor represents a broad spectrum of devices, particularly in the enterprise, where less consumer-oriented devices like wrist- and hip-mounted computers and ring-mounted scanners are more the norm, as well as head-mounted displays like that of Vuzix and the much-maligned Google Glass. However, the majority of the deployments for these wearables have primarily been for relatively niche applications that have traditionally revolved around data collection-intensive environments like the warehouse, where the benefits of hands-free devices are more immediately tangible. However, with enterprise mobility reaching even the most conservative of companies, interest in wearables is spreading across industry verticals. Notable examples include the healthcare industry, as well as logistics and field services where the benefits of being hands-free are becoming increasingly apparent. While many of these developing-use cases have been for head-mounted displays like Google Glass (particularly in logistics and warehousing for vision-based picking applications), it has made enterprises take a more creative approach to equipping their mobile workforce and the benefits to be gained. Data from VDC Research show that a growing number of industries are evaluating wearables, although the lack of a clear ROI remains one of the primary barriers to adoption.
Finding the killer app
The primary challenge in bringing wearables like the smartwatch into the enterprise is that, unlike other mobile devices, the wearable is not typically a standalone product but is tethered to another device – usually a smartphone. By acting as a complementary device, it brings up the question as to whether it is truly needed in a line of business applications. However, the independent software vendor and development community is bullish on the notion, as evidenced by the growing number of solutions that incorporate smartwatches: last month Good Technology became the first enterprise mobility management (EMM) vendor to support wearables with Good Work, while Salesforce launched Salesforce Wear in the summer of last year as a platform to encourage app development for the platform. Many of the emerging use cases revolve around hands-free notification and ID functionality through near field communication and Bluetooth low energy, although EMM vendors like Good Technology see potential for data security through the use of the device in dual-factor authentication and access control. Nevertheless, many of the gains are viewed as incremental and complementary rather than revolutionary, as the introduction of the smartphone and tablet into the workplace has set the bar high.
Awaiting the tipping point
With thought leaders across the board predicting the explosion of wearables and IoT both in consumer and enterprise markets, it is only a matter of time before wearables as a whole gain more widespread acceptance and, once again, all eyes are on Apple. If the company succeeds as it has in the past in capturing the imagination of the public and the developer community alike, this month’s launch will likely prove the much-anticipated and talked about tipping point for wearables. This, in turn, will bring forth new layers of complexity regarding bring-your-own-device and security policies to an already complex environment, especially as the vast majority of devices will be personally-owned for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, April’s launch will determine whether wearables can finally make the transition from consumer trend to enterprise-ready.
Kathryn Nassberg is an analyst for VDC Research, specializing in enterprise mobility.