There's been a lot of buzz about wearables such as Google Glass, Apple's iWatch and Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch, but no one knows how these devices will affect the enterprise.
A smartwatch might seem like a purely consumer-facing device: Fitness buffs use them to keep track of their workouts and sleep cycles. But there are uses for a tool such as a smartwatch in business settings, too. A worker who spends most of his day sitting in a cubicle may not need devices that offer vital data at a moment's notice, but emergency workers and medical personnel have a lot to gain from such tools. Find out more about wearables, how they may fit in your company and what steps you might have to take to manage them.
What are wearable devices?
Wearable computing devices are tiny computers that users can wear on their bodies. Some devices clip to clothing, some users wear them as glasses and others are smartwatches. Some wearable devices are like desktop computers that have been shrunken down for body wear, but most wearable devices that are getting attention now -- Fitbit Flex, Pebble smartwatch, Apple iWatch and Google Glass, to name a few -- link to the Web or to a mobile device via Bluetooth.
Wearables such as Fitbit Flex track steps, sleep cycles, workout stats and more, then deliver that information to the user's smartphone. Other wearable computing devices may be useful in the medical field because they can monitor patients' vitals and send that information to their doctors. Google Glass is purported to give users an augmented reality experience, supplying information on demand. For example, when a Google Glass wearer walks into an airport, the device might show him detailed information about his flight.
Are there business use cases for wearables?
Because wearable computing devices let users go hands-free, there are a lot of ways they could be useful at work. For emergency personnel, search and rescue teams and mobile warehouse workers, wearables can provide high-tech mobility and tracking features. Smartglasses could be useful for technicians who need to consult a manual or a set of schematics while performing repairs. Wearables may also be able to remotely manage equipment, such as machinery on an assembly line, making the workplace safer for employees. Workers who need to wear special suits, such as environmental disaster teams, could have hands-free access to data via smartglasses or a smartwatch. Any user who needs instant access to important data -- members of sales teams, real estate agents, lawyers, rural doctors, law enforcement and fire fighters, military personnel and more -- can benefit from using wearables in the workplace.
Will I have to manage them in my company?
Wearable computing devices haven't gone mainstream yet, so it's hard to say whether they definitely will or won't end up in the enterprise. If you consider the rise of smartphones and tablets a harbinger of wearables' trajectory, then they could be in your office fairly soon. But consumers are fickle and difficult to please. If wearables don't take off with consumers, they may never make it to the enterprise. If users do start wearing smartglasses and smartwatches to the office, it could pose some problems for IT.
As it stands, you wouldn't ask a user to relinquish his Rolex so you could configure and secure it, but you might face that exact situation with smartwatches. Undoubtedly, there will be pushback from some users. Plus, so little is known about how wearables will work that it's tough to say if or how you'll be able to manage them. Will you be able to apply configuration profiles or mobile device management settings? How will you keep corporate data from leaking from someone's smartglasses? There aren't answers to these questions yet.
This was first published in September 2013