It is easy to categorize wearables in the enterprise as simply a variation or next step in Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). It is, however, a bit more complicated than that. While clearly enterprise wearables and BYOD overlap, wearables is a distinct category with its own dynamics and should be thought of differently from BYOD.
Brent Blum, the director of wearable technology for Accenture, sees the acceptance of smartphones and tablets on one hand and the resistance to wearables on the other, at least to this point, as the key differentiator. “I don’t think wearables will be same as the BYOD trend,” he said. “In order for that to happen, first you have to have consumer adoption. With smart glasses, we don’t have that.”
BYOD and wearables entered the enterprise in different ways. BYOD emerged from the consumer base and was heartily resisted by IT departments and corporations overall. Resistance was futile: iPhones and Android devices quickly became wildly popular and so sophisticated that they were of equal or even greater value to employees as enterprise-provided tools. IT departments as a rule are as controlling as the stereotypical mother-in-law, and having employees running around with mobile devices of all makes, models and security capabilities was a nightmare. Instead of waking up, IT departments began the transition – one that still is ongoing – to accommodate all these foreign gadgets.
BYOD or Not, Wearables Will Be a Big Deal in the Enterprise
Wearables are taking a different route. The category, beside gaining some traction in the fitness wearable category, has not taken off with consumers. The BYOD genesis – folks gradually and almost unconsciously using these tools in the execution of their work to a point at which they can’t be excluded – hasn’t materialized in the wearable sector.
This is not to say that wearables in the enterprise won’t be a big deal. In fact, they already are. Close observers suggest several types of wearables that likely will be big in the enterprise. The determining factor, as with any business tool, is the value the wearable brings to the business. Amisha Gandhi, a director for global product marketing and communications for mobile at SAP, says the use case of wearables will be determined on a case-by-case basis: “Is it condensing or accelerating a business process? Is it making the life of the worker easier?”
At the end of the day, she said, wearables can be transformative, if applied correctly. “The best experience is getting the job done without any experience at all, by condensing and eliminating processes,” she said.
Glasses are a natural: Enabling an expert miles or even continents away to see what a worker in the field is seeing and offering advice and guidance is a big deal that is happening today. This obviously useful application, labeled “over the shoulder coaching” by Blum, is even more valuable when combined with augmented reality enabling users to consult documents, schematics and other aids.
Another wearable category that is likely to gain traction is clothing carrying tiny sensors that monitor the health of a worker or, especially in the cases of field workers, check for noxious and dangerous fumes. Fume-alerting sensors may be built into other pieces of equipment, such as the lantern helmets worn by coal miners.
A third type of wearable that may find a home in the office is watches. Indeed, these may come closest to the smartphone model: Computer-based watch wearables, such as the Apple Watch that soon will be released, likely will gain consumer buy-in. Those folks will bring them to work. The vocational uses and management of a smart watch will closely follow and build upon consumer uses and the pattern established by BYOD in the smartphone and tablet sectors.
Enterprise Wearables Distinct from Consumer Versions
In the main, though, wearable computing is distinct from the first iteration of BYOD. The enterprise sector will lead this time, and consumers may or may not follow.
Experts also say that the hardware used for enterprise wearables will be similar to what is used for consumer devices, but not identical. For instance, a wearable to be used in areas where combustible fumes are common must be engineered to ensure that under no circumstances will the device be able to generate a spark.
On the software side, apps for enterprise wearables in many cases will need sophisticated “hooks” to backend databases unnecessary in consumer wearables and will need to meet more demanding corporate security and reliability standards. Josh Waddell, the vice president of SAP’s Mobile Innovation Center, said that enterprise wearables will require a greater level of “persistence,” or ability to save and store data in case a connection is lost or other problems arise. “I do think there can be significant differences between solutions,” he said.
Keas.com creates wearable software that is used by human resources departments to support gamification and other strategies to drive company goals. Vice President of Products Raul Mujica pointed to some best practices for support of wearables, at least in the context of company-wide programs and projects. He said that it is a good idea to tie wearables to an incentive plan of some sort, create a single-focused activity surrounded by a community of users, and demonstrate buy-in from C-level executives. Wearables need a “killer app” to take off.
The interesting thing about Mujica’s suggestions is that they are aimed at generating interest in wearables as a way of enabling the employee and his or her employer to benefit. That is a traditional top-down approach, and shows the difference between wearables and the earlier iteration of the BYOD approach.
Wearables will be a big deal in the enterprise and companies need to plan for them. The first step, ironically, is to understand what they are not: a simple extension of Bring Your Own Device.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.