Smartwatches at work: Boon or bane for IT?

After years of coping with BYOD headaches, IT shops may soon have to support smartwatches

It's hard to assess how popular smartwatches will be for business users, much less for the IT staffers that need to protect the data running over them.

Android Wear smartwatches will respond to the cue "OK, Google" in the same way Google's Voice Search does.

One potential business use for a smartwatch centers on quick alerts for users, who would no longer need to fumble for a smartphone in a purse or pocket. A stockbroker, for example, could get an alert when a stock hits a certain price, or a doctor would know when a patient's condition turns critical.

Both examples put the smartwatch in league with personal pagers from the 1980s, which became very popular with both doctors and stockbrokers.

And if a smartwatch on the wrist can do all the things Google envisioned for Android Wear at this week's Google I/O, it could prove to be an easy way to make calls or get traffic directions while on the road.

In that scenario, a smartwatch would assume the role of hands free driving technology. Meanwhile, Google is working to make Android smartphones work with car displays via its Android Auto SDK (software development kit).

To be clear, Google isn't particularly pushing smartwatches for business settings. Instead, its priority seems to be on making them stylish enough and useful enough that people will buy them and wear them and use them both for work and their personal lives.

In a breakout session at I/O simply titled "Wearable computing with Google," Timothy Jordan, a developer advocate for Google, declared that "the desktop and laptop are tools for work; [wearables] are tools for life."

Jordan's comment wasn't a Google policy statement, of course, but it does focus on how people use technology. Work is part of most people's lives, and work and personal time are increasingly inseparable in the 21st century.

The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend has shown, modern society demands a blending of work and personal time, as well as the technology that goes along with both. Google embraced that reality more fully with the Android Work framework introduced at I/O; it's designed to help IT shops securely protect enterprise data and apps on the same Android phone used for personal apps and data, everything from games to family photos.

Its seems likely that Android Work will join with Android Wear, so that an IT shop can prevent certain apps or data from making their way to a smartwatch. Much of what a smartwatch does will be connected via Bluetooth to the Android smartphone, which is where IT shops would apply Android Work restrictions.

Android Work will be part of the next version of Android -- known for now simply as Android L -- arriving in the fall.

Android Work comes from technology in Samsung Knox and from Divide, an enterprise software company that Google purchased inMay. "If the Divide/Knox technology is embedded into Android itself, then any device that runs on top of Android could potentially use the technology," Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, noted via email.

"Of course, Android's an open OS, so there is some possibility for differentiation by vendors and they could decide not to implement an Android Work feature," Gold added. "Android Work will take additional computing resources, so for very low-end devices [like a smartwatch] it may not make sense to have Android Work embedded. But, theoretically, that could happen."

Many smartwatches, including the Samsung Gear 2 that went on sale in April, do have a fair amount of native storage capacity. So IT shops will have to be concerned with smartwatches as standalone computing devices, not simply as devices governed by management policies like Android Work in connected smartphones.

Given that smartwatches are still evolving, several analysts said they remain unsure how popular or necessary the devices will have to be before they pose demands on IT.

In addition to acting as a wrist-worn pager for alerts, other possibilities for corporate use have surfaced: Smartwatches could be used to replace employee ID cards or as a quick way to check email or take a call.

Timothy Jordan, developer advocate, talks about wearable computing at Google I/O.

Four analysts, including Gold, all noted that those functions can already be accomplished with a smartphone. The simple convenience of using a smartwatch instead might not prove persuasive enough, or important enough, to merit support, authorization or funding from corporations and their IT departments.

David Singleton, director of engineering for Android, gave details on the Samsung Gear Live smartwatch running Android Wear during his keynote address at Google I/O. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

"Many examples of what a worker could do with a smartwatch could pretty much be done by a smartphone today and if companies have spent time and money making smartphones secure, why invest in a watch?" said Carolina Milanesi, director of research at Kantar WorldWide. "Ok, cool, so my watch could replace my ID badge. But so could my phone, so why spend $200 for the watch?"

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, agreed. "Wearables will play a bigger role in the enterprise, but much of what's been suggested for smartwatch uses could be done by smartphones today," he said. Enterprises haven't been eager to move from magnetic card technologies to PIN-and-chip, or RFID or NFC -- all of which are arguably more convenient and secure.

That could be an indication of how uninterested companies will be in embracing smartwatches, Enderle said.

"I have no doubt there will be companies that bring out smartwatch solutions and even enterprises that deploy them, but until and unless companies can make wearables far less complex, the market is more likely to move" in another direction, he added. That includes tiny computing devices that work as identity cards (and more) and could be surgically implanted into humans. Since they run off the body's own electrical field, they'd require almost no external power. Smartwatches, by comparison, must be regularly recharged.

But surgically embedded wearables of that nature might not happen for another 20 years, which gives smartwatches and other wearables like Google Glass plenty of time to grow in popularity.

To justify the cost of deploying and supporting smartwatches, a company would need to identify a unique and critical advantage not available through a smartphone or other existing technology. "Maybe a smartwatch could offer an alert to some form of significant threat, like an elevated body temperature during a pandemic for instance," Enderle said.

Most people notice they feel hot when they have a fever, but perhaps a smartwatch with a special sensor could alert a user to a subtle body change -- not just temperature -- that could be significant in combating an illness.

It's just the kind of conjecture that's helping to drive smartwatch innovation. Google unveiled the LG G Watch and the Samsung Galaxy Live at I/O with the Motorola 360 coming later this yearall on Android Wear. Meanwhile, Apple is reportedly poised to launch a smartwatch in October.

Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC, said a smartwatch might have great potential for executives and others if Google and other companies can combine a worker's context at a given time of day and location with his or her schedule.

"Just having a notification on a wrist of a call isn't so great because we can already do that," he said. "I wonder how contextual wearables can get, such as their knowing what you're doing and where you are at any given time so you can make a quick glance to see what's important to do next," Llamas said.

"If you are an insurance agent and receive a sudden notification by a client to meet somewhere, some intelligence like Google could understand that and move the client's message further up the agent's notification list, pushing the personal messages lower so the agent can head over to see the client.

"We can already do that kind of thing with a lot of emails already, but this ability will surely make its way to wearables."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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