Enterprise Wearables Present Tech Challenges and Management Pitfalls
Wearable technology experts share insights on the current hardware and software challenges facing the industry, as well as advice on how CIOs and IT can avoid the most common pitfalls associated with enterprise wearables.
By Al Sacco
Managing Editor, CIO
This week, wearable technology vendors, evangelists, executives and experts of all ilk gathered in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, at the Wearable Tech Expo, to convene and talk about today’s hottest wearables.
There was a surprising focus on the enterprise at the show. During the past couple of years, wearables have largely been presented as consumer gadgets, and their true business value was questioned. The tides are changing, and the shift couldn’t have been clearer at the expo.
“The skepticism about the value [of wearables] in the enterprise is melting away,” according to Joe Fitzgerald, a senior manager with Deloitte Consulting, which offers wearable-related consulting and rollout assistance, with a focus on smartglasses.
Ed English, chief product officer at APX Labs, a company that makes a software platform to integrate smartglasses with commonly used corporate systems, agrees. “It’s a no-brainer. You don’t have to convince anyone anymore.” (Deloitte and APX Labs recently announced a strategic partnership.)
It’s no longer a matter of “if,” but “when,” for wearables and the business. A number of significant technological challenges, however, slow hardware and software evolution, and smart CIOs and their IT departments need to beware of the common pitfalls if they hope to realize the true business value of smartwatches, smartglasses and other wearables.
Wearable Technology Hardware, Software Challenges
Though the concept of wearable tech isn’t new, modern wearable devices are still the very early days. There’s also some confusion around what exactly constitutes a wearable.
“The wearables category suffers from an ill-defined definition of what a wearable is,” Fitzgerald says.
Though there were many new fitness- and health-related wearables unveiled at the Wearable Tech Expo, the enterprise focus was on smartglasses, and to some extent, smartwatches. Both categories current face many of the same tech challenges.
Myriam Joire, smartwatch-maker Pebble’s chief product evangelist, identified seven major challenges for smartwatches during a keynote:
Poor battery life
The lack of standards for lightweight, waterproof charging connectors
The relative energy inefficiency of color displays
Data input challenges
Privacy concerns over the collection of personal data, which could be required for advances experiences
A lack of efficient Internet connectivity options, creating the need for a companion device
Design issues, which have resulted in many awkward-looking wearables
The Pebble evangelist’s fifth point could be particularly challenging for enterprises that need to ensure the security of corporate data.
“You need to trust the tech world right now and give us your data,” Joire said. “Without it, we cannot make this happen. If you want intelligent, context, you need to give us your data. Privacy and security are super important, but we also need to start to trust our technology.”
Joire repeatedly stressed the importance of waterproofing the ports and connections on wearables, adding that there’s currently no ideal way to waterproof the standard micro USB ports. (Some products with micro USB ports have rubber covers that protect them, but they tend to loosen over time.)
Many of the same issues apply to smartglasses, according to Fitzgerald, who identified battery life, display brightness and power efficiency, and communications issues as the three major tech concerns for enterprise wearables.
From a hardware perspective, Fitzgerald says improvements will need to come in the form of quality, transparent display projection tech; high-power displays in small form factors, and low-power GPS and other sensors. Fitzgerald suggests that future wearable software may need to be hardware-agnostic.
“There has to be greater standardization of platforms, especially from an enterprise perspective,” Fitzgerald says.
Aaron Salow, CEO of XOEye, which offers a number of different software systems for enterprise wearables, also identified the need for standardization across platforms during a “Wearables @ Work” panel. “Companies that are willing to work together will be successful,” he says. “More collaboration will breed success.”
Wearable Tech and Common IT Pitfalls
APX Labs’ English says CIOs and IT departments need to be aware of a number of unique pitfalls when rolling out new wearable tech, specifically smartglasses.
First and foremost, there’s a smaller margin of error, particular when it comes to user experience.
“Wearables raise the game for quality and experience for IT shops,” English says. “A lot of them haven’t been as focused on that as they need to be. Wearables require a whole new set of design requirements and user experience requirements that IT may not have exercised in the past.
The second major pitfall is trying to tackle too much too fast.
“It’s easy to imagine the future. It’s easy to listen to the marketing hype and imagine that you can jump into it now,” English says. “It’s easy to overreach, in terms of the scale of your first deployment.”
The third pitfall relates to infrastructure readiness, English says: “You’re going to have to harness [information or resources] that you haven’t had the need access before.”
Deloitte’s Fitzgerald notes that, from an enterprise perspective, the value of wearables often relies on integration with legacy corporate systems.
“In some use cases, productivity gains are reliant on getting information from other corporate systems,” he says. If the user has to wait, they might well as perform the task the old way, the way that they have been.
Finally, smartglasses and other wearables generally don’t have keyboards for data input, instead relying on voice or other means of input, according to English.
“Legacy systems have been built to accept form based data entry by and large,” English says. “The new systems you’re harnessing and accessing, giving power to your deskless workers, their feedback back into the big system, is going to come in a different form.”
CIOs and IT departments need to bridge the two worlds, English says, because there won’t be a compelling case to rip and replace existing investments.
Finally, Fitzgerald says CIOs should proactively prepare for potential regulatory issues around wearables. Unfortunately, the regulatory issue is really a gray area at this point. “The regulatory bodies have not figured this all out yet either.”
So what can IT do to prepare?
Companies running pilots “need to start thinking about what they need to measure, from a regulatory perspective,” Fitzgerald says. That way, if regulators ask, “they can show progress and that they’re mitigating any sort of concern.”
Traditionally, more devices mean more work for IT. But that may not be the case with wearables. Both English and Fitzgerald say the proliferation of wearables shouldn’t be a significant concern for IT.
“The tools are already there for IT to harness,” according to English. “There’s the potential to consolidate devices. Anything a smartphone or tablet can do, your glasses can do. Glasses can actually be a replacement for a lot of these other devices.”
The business case will drive wearables, English says. “There’s obvious value for people that build things, people that repair things, people that move things and then people in patient care. Those are the no-brainers. If there’s enough value, you can push through any barrier.”
Al Sacco was a journalist, blogger and editor who covers the fast-paced mobile beat for CIO.com and IDG Enterprise, with a focus on wearable tech, smartphones and tablet PCs. Al managed CIO.com writers and contributors, covered news, and shared insightful expert analysis of key industry happenings. He also wrote a wide variety of tutorials and how-tos to help readers get the most out of their gadgets, and regularly offered up recommendations on software for a number of mobile platforms. Al resides in Boston and is a passionate reader, traveler, beer lover, film buff and Red Sox fan.