Wearable tech in the enterprise grows, but few workplace uses exist

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Take a glance at the wrists of your co-workers, and you’re likely to see more and more of them adorned with smartwatches, fitness trackers, and other wearable technology. In meetings, you increasingly see colleagues surreptitiously glancing at their tiny screens, hoping in vain that no one is noticing.

It isn’t just you. The latest smartwatch numbers all say that smartwatch shipments are growing fast, and the internet-connected devices are beginning to achieve mainstream acceptance: Last month, The NPD Group’s new Smartwatch Total Market Report noted that smartwatch unit sales jumped 61 percent in 2018, while dollar volume rose 51 percent to approach $5 billion in sales. Some 16 percent of U.S. adults now own a smartwatch, the report said, up from 12 percent at the end of 2017.

The March 2019 edition of IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker, meanwhile, reported “strong growth in the worldwide wearables market, led by holiday shipments of smartwatches, wrist bands, and ear-worn devices.” More specifically, fourth-quarter 2018 shipments hit a record 59.3 million, while over the full year, wearables shipments grew by 27.5 percent to top 172 million units.

Enteprise wearable predictions haven’t come true

No question, that’s a lot of smartwatches. And their entering the enterprise on employees’ wrists has raised security, network performance, and wireless connectivity concerns. (We’re going to need Wi-Fi 6 to handle them.) But as for their transforming the workplace, not many of the devices are being used for business purposes beyond checking messages and calendar appointments.

There isn’t a lot of research on wearables and workplace use, but I thought a 2015 Salesforce Research report called Putting Wearables To Work, Insights on wearable technology in business was very illustrative of what many folks were expecting. The report takes an optimistic view, among other things predicting 300 percent growth in enterprise wearables in the next two years—but I couldn’t find any research to confirm or deny whether that growth actually happened.

More interesting than the growth predictions, perhaps, the report splits enterprise wearable use into two parts: employee use and customer applications. The top employee uses include workplace security, employee time management, and employee communications. From my perspective, though, much of that sounds like messaging and checking the time (for which your watch does not have to be particularly smart).

The customer application side seems more promising. Common customer applications predicted include loyalty programs, point-of-sale (PoS) uses and something called an “integrated shopping experience.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing a lot of smartwatch-based loyalty programs or PoS applications. I have no idea what an integrated shopping experience is, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen one on of those on a smartwatch, either.

The report cited the lack of applications as the biggest barrier to B2B adoption of wearable tech, and that problem doesn’t seem to have disappeared. Nor have other concerns in the report, including cost, device capabilities, and security.

Still waiting…

All of those concerns have been with us since at least 2015, and I don’t see any resolution on the horizon. Just about every productivity app you can think of has a mobile version optimized for smartphones, but very few of these tools have smartwatch versions. Does your IT department support even wearables? If so, it’s the first one I’ve heard of that does.

Frankly, I don’t see a lot of incentives for app vendors or IT departments to make smartphone versions of productivity and business tools. For one thing, since none of the various smartwatches use standard browsers or anything like that, vendors would have to build separate versions for each device. And while the Apple Watch consistently leads the market share charts, IDC ranks it as only a little more than a quarter of all smartwatches.

Put simply, it’s hard to see how the potential market justifies the development of smartwatch versions of existing enterprise and productivity software, much less the creation of new tools specifically for smartwatch users in business settings. And until and unless that changes, smartwatches and other wearables are likely to remain consumer devices that show up in the enterprise largely when individual workers bring them in, with little or no official role.

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