October 29, 2015
No one ever said that every technology industry prediction was supposed to come true as originally promised.
If that were the case, by now we’d all be wearing smart glasses and barking voice commands at the miniaturized electronics perched at the tips of our noses, hanging off our ears or sewn into the collars of our coats.
Instead of thumb-typing into smartphones, we’d be wearing smart t-shirts, our shoes would count our steps, our watches would check our bags in at the airport and our business casual khaki pants would adjust for our ever-changing waist size.
While most of these technologies now exist in some form, consumer demand for them remains soft. Exhibit A: Google Glass, which was once heralded as the first commercially viable smartglass solution. Despite tight controls over who could buy the high-tech frames and what was expected of them once they brought them home, the initial iteration failed to spark much interest beyond the early adopters who evangelized them.
The reasons Google Glass failed to capture consumer interest are easy to understand. Like any first-generation technology, they were expensive, with a clunky, radically different interface, a battery that barely lasted until lunch, almost-invisible developer support, and a similar lack of a killer app that might convince consumers to abandon the comfort of their smartphones. Google eventually – and quietly – shelved its ambitious plans to get consumers on board.
Too much choice, too early:
Duncan Stewart, director of research for technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte Canada says most technologies fail to be adopted for a number of reasons rather than one single make-or-break item. The currently fragmented ecosystem for wrist-mounted devices gives IT departments so much choice – and a fear of picking the losing one – that they simply wait on the sidelines until the market matures. The failure in the consumer space could be slowing things down on the enterprise side, as well.
“If people use wearables for gaming at home, while they’re driving or in other parts of their personal life, then adding them to their work life wouldn’t seem like a particularly disruptive or invasive change,” Stewart said. “But since that consumer market has failed to happen, that may have slowed the enterprise market as well.”
The tendency for initial-generation enterprise wearables – notably wristbands – to be single-function devices isn’t helping advance the enterprise agenda, either.
“The problem with most wearables is they only do one thing at a time, like presence or allow building or system access,” says Stewart. “It’s simple and it’s cheap, but on the other hand it solves so few problems that can’t be solved by having people use a regular NFC-chipped card on a lanyard, which is what everybody does anyway. So is putting it on your wrist better? Sure. But is it enough better to make you want to change your entire system, buy a whole bunch of devices and learn how to use it? Maybe not. The limited functionality of a wrist-mounted wearable is so limited that the market may be too small for now.”
While multifunction hardware will eventually begin to loosen demand for truly value-added solutions relative to what’s already out there, Stewart says the market isn’t there yet.
Glasses follow watches:
Despite the relative success of the Apple Watch, which now sells more than all other smartwatches combined, the consumer market for wearables is still far from its tipping point. But it isn’t consumers who will drive this market, anyway. Because if wearables are going to reshape how we live, then it will be the enterprise that gets the party started.
Data from Compass Intelligence bears that out. It estimates the U.S. enterprise wearables market will reach US$8.5 billion by 2020. While the consumer wearables market is tracking at a compound annual rate of 38%, the company projects an enterprise wearable CAGR of 139% between 2015 and 2019, with strong demand in healthcare, energy, industry, field service, government and the military.
Google’s recent relaunch of its smart glasses project – now called Google Glass Enterprise Edition – serves as a template for the enterprise-led wearable revolution. Updated hardware, combined with direct partnerships in specific industry verticals like manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, government and military, will help shape the ecosystem for wearables more effectively than a less focused consumer push ever could.
Stewart sees wearables like these as gamechangers in a wide range of enterprise scenarios.
“I actually think that probably the single biggest market will not be for people who already know how to fix something, but for people who are in the process of training, learning or apprenticing,” he says. “Content will be a significant barrier – it’s a chicken-and-egg situation, where when you buy the devices there’s no content. But we’ll get over that limitation eventually, too.”
Understanding the need:
But before content can be built, the use cases need to be understood by corporate decision-makers.
“There is still a very big gap between the interest in these types of devices and the actual appetite, uptake and use,” says Dr. Michael Bjorn, head of research for Ericsson ConsumerLab. “Is that gap closing? In the two years we’ve been studying it, we haven’t seen much movement, but it’s still too short a time period to really tell which way it will go.”
Bjorn says the limited inroads of wearables to-date could be due to a number of factors.
“Maybe the products are not mature yet, and maybe the technology isn’t really there yet,” he says. “The companies addressing the space haven’t gone all the way in terms of understanding what the real requirements are. Maybe we need to also see the industry mature a little more to see what those requirements really are. There’s a potentially big ecosystem that needs to form, and that ecosystem isn’t really there yet.”
One such killer app could be security. Traditional approaches to authentication, for example, often force compromises between security and convenience.
“Right now, if you speak to employees in almost any company, you’ll hear stories about how frustrated they are by all the different modes of access to the systems that are required to make the company run,” says Shawn Chance, vice president of marketing and business development at Toronto-based wearable vendor Nymi. “It quickly becomes painful for them – imagine giving a presentation to a client and your laptop keeps locking up at preset intervals – but it also has a cost for the company because of all the time spent resetting passwords and replacing lost fobs.”
Chance says wearables can play a crucial role in establishing a sense of balance between security and convenience.
“Making some of that friction go away for the users and increasing their productivity while maintaining the level of security that the company mandates and requires is fundamental,” he adds. “We actually think you can have both, that you can have convenience and security together.”
Not without its challenges:
For all the promise that wearables hold for the enterprise, security concerns could prove challenging unless companies plan accordingly.
“The more Internet connected devices you have, the higher the risk,” says Alexander Rau, national information security strategist with Symantec Canada. “On the one hand, companies want to make money, attract more customers, and grow the business. They want to jump on the wearable and Internet of Things bandwagon as quickly as they can so they are one step ahead of the competition when offering new products and services.”
But Rau says in the rush to remain competitive, security is often overlooked.
“Companies need to really balance the need for competitiveness with their own security requirements,” he adds. “They really need to bring their security department into the conversation so as to not to forge ahead with a solution that truly would represent a risk to the consumer and the organization.”
It might sound familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in IT over the past decade.
“We’re seeing the same mistakes being made that were made in lots of different spaces, including network security, mobile security, and Web application security,” says Daniel Miessler, principal security architect with security software suite vendor HP Fortify. “The problem with wearables for enterprises is that they’re pretty much unseen in a lot of cases – you’ll be able to quickly take pictures or capture video or audio without anybody noticing. Wearable form factors make it much easier to be under the radar.”
The risks of bring-your-own:
Rau says the continued blurring of lines between personal and professional use of all connected devices has significant implications for enterprise adopters.
“Companies have to consider how they’ll deal with this onslaught of new devices that are coming into their environment,” he says. “What additional steps do they have to take to allow on the one hand the end user to have the flexibility to use technology for both professional and personal use, but on the other hand to protect the company assets from being exposed?”
Rau says wearables will change the nature of how we interact with our devices – and that will keep security pros busy.
“We’re moving away from clicking buttons on a screen toward gestures, voice commands and other new types of interactions,” he says, which gives hackers more opportunities to trick end users into doing things they shouldn’t be doing. “Attackers are always trying to change and adapt to new entry methods, and security strategies have to keep up.”
Meanwhile, Miessler says the bring-your-own-device speed bumps that vexed most organizations over the last decade or so will come back to haunt them as wearable momentum builds in the enterprise.
“Companies need to be security-first, but instead of IT putting a new solution through a proper evaluation and rollout, someone might walk in and ask to make it work. As before, the tail will be wagging the dog,” says Miessler.
“It could simply be that employees genuinely want to bring their wearables into the office, and they’re simply trying to retain them. Just like they did with smartphones and tablets, new grads will want to have their wearable gadgets at work, and for an organization to tell them they can’t have them will probably be a significant detractor for wanting to work there.”
Despite the relatively slow uptake of wearables in the enterprise, Deloitte’s Stewart says it’s only a temporary state of affairs.
“Virtually nobody is saying we have abandoned our wearables project and we never expect this to happen,” he says. “Instead, they’re saying we started playing around with it two years ago, we continue to play around with it, we’ll play around with it this year and maybe next, but we are not rolling it out in the near term. We’ll get there, just not now. Everybody’s talking. Everybody’s excited. It’s always a question of when not if.” C+
Carmi Levy (@carmilevy) is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist.