Wearable computing devices could have enterprise prospects

Wearable computing devices may see an uptick in sales over the next few years, but how wearables will affect the enterprise is still up in the air.

There are some exciting potential use cases for wearable computing devices in the enterprise, but enterprise adoption will depend on services developers and the needs of employees.

Wearable computing devices such as Pebble, Fitbit Flex and Google Glass are gadgets that clip to clothes, wrap around wrists and mimic glasses. They're small, portable and so new that nobody knows how they'll fare with consumers or in the enterprise. Looking back at the fast rise of smartphones and tablets, you might assume that wearables will repeat that performance. Not so fast.

Smartphones and tablets are "cool" devices that flipped the workplace upside down because they help employees do their jobs with more efficiency and productivity. These devices -- and the apps and services that come with them -- are easy to set up and use. Plus, they can sidestep many of the limitations of more traditional IT-managed applications and services.

It is still unknown whether wearable computing devices will be able to deliver all that. What we do know is that workers wearing smart devices won't need to reach into their pockets as often. Instead, people will be able to gesture, speak or blink to retrieve the information they need or to accomplish tasks. The question is: Are workers really encumbered by having to reach for their devices?

Possible uses for wearables in the enterprise

There are certainly a few ways the enterprise could benefit from employees' use of wearable computing devices. The hands-free and location-independent operations of wearables could have a number of use cases.

For example, Eurotech's Zypad delivers a wrist-mounted mini-PC to those needing high-tech mobility and connectivity in the field, such as emergency personnel, search-and-rescue teams, warehouse workers or anyone on the move. Wearables also make it possible to track individuals, such as nurses performing rounds or emergency workers in the field. Finally, smartglasses could be capable of displaying schematics to a technician repairing a specialized piece of machinery, which means no hands and no fuss. All the information workers need would be before their eyes.

Wearable computing devices could also manage equipment remotely, such as assembly-line machinery, providing an extra layer of safety for the worker. For environmental disaster work in which employees must wear protective suiting, a wearable device could be an invaluable asset by offering hands-free access to vital data. Even sales personnel could take advantage of easily accessible information to deliver better customer service.

Challenges of wearable computing devices

The extent to which wearable computing devices will be implemented in the enterprise depends on whether there's a commitment from developers and organizations to build business apps and services that complement these devices.

When workers first brought their smartphones and tablets into the workplace, they also brought Dropbox, Evernote and other cloud-based consumer services, which become integral to how employees conducted business. Service providers responded by offering business-centric versions of their services, and enterprises developed their own line of business (LOB) apps for mobile devices. Will such services and apps be developed for the wearable computing market? If not, will organizations be willing to fill the gap or build even more LOB apps for the new devices? We can only wait and see.

In the meantime, wearable computing devices pose the same challenges as any other device brought into the enterprise. IT will have to manage and secure wearables to protect sensitive data. Plus, companies will have to implement special use policies for each device type. To complicate matters, many wearable products rely on Bluetooth connections, which can be susceptible to attack. Wearable computing devices such as Google Glass can record everything they see and hear, even without the knowledge of those being recorded. Should the enterprise even permit such a device within its walls?

In the end, it will take more than just consumer excitement to drive adoption of wearable computing devices in the enterprise. Organizations will have to see enough productivity gains that they're willing to face the challenges of managing yet another type of device. Further, wearables must be able to offer more than just a hands-free alternative to reaching into your pocket, or an industry-specific use case.

If the evolution of smartphones and tablets is any indication of the future of wearable computing, it's safe to assume that anything is possible.

In part one of this series, learn about what kinds of wearable computing devices could be on their way to your office.

This was first published in July 2013
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