After early hype, smartwatches slowly emerge with enterprise uses

Two-year-old Apple Watch seen as leading the charge for commercial smartwatch usage

apple watch home finger
Credit: Apple

A market for enterprise-use smartwatches is slowly emerging, being led by the Apple Watch, according to market research firm IDC.

"Apple Watch in particular, and to some extent other smartwatches, do have relevance in the enterprise, although to date the usage has been quite low as the market is still nascent," IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani said in an email.

The first Apple Watch was released with much fanfare just over two years ago this week -- on April 24, 2015.

While the Apple Watch and other smartwatches haven't sold as well as once hoped, they are part of an emerging landscape of wrist wearables that includes several Samsung models and more than a dozen other smartwatch brands that natively run third-party apps. These smartwatches compete with some less-intelligent models from Fitbit and other wrist wearables sold primarily as consumer devices to monitor fitness.

Whether smartwatches ever evolve into vital tools for workers is hard to predict. It's unlikely that smartwatches will completely replace professional workers' smartphones any time soon, if ever, but that doesn't mean smartwatches can't have an important enterprise role.

So far, the consumer market for smartwatches has grown more slowly than expected, although IDC recently said the overall smartwatch category will improve and grow at a healthy rate of 31% on average for each of the coming five years.

In March, IDC said that nearly 50 million smartwatches, along with what it terms "basic watches" that work wirelessly, shipped in 2016, a number expected to reach 152 million in 2021. Included in those numbers are a small portion of smartwatches and basic watches that will be sold into the commercial market for business, schools and government.

For that overall commercial category, 2.6 million devices shipped in 2016, which is expected to reach 3.6 million in 2017 and climb to 11.6 million in 2021, said IDC's Ubrani. IDC has noticed a particular pickup of the Apple Watch in the commercial segment, which includes business users.

In its March report, IDC said Apple "has been leading the charge on introducing the smartwatch category to the commercial segment." Apple had its best quarter ever for overall shipments of the Apple Watch, both Series 1 and Series 2, in the fourth quarter of 2016 when the company shipped 4.6 million watches for both commercial and consumer customers.

Workers already wear smartwatches on the job for quick access to notifications and emails, as well as an array of personal fitness data. Also, some employers are giving workers smartwatches for specific tasks, Ubrani said.

Among the workplace uses for smartwatches, enterprise software company SAP has made mobile apps available for Apple Watch and Samsung smartwatches for more than a year, but it isn't clear how widely they have been deployed. In 2015, one ambitious concept design detailed how a medical device service technician could check the status of repairs on an Apple Watch with the SAP Work Manager app. The success of that project isn't known.

A more recent example is the Salesforce Wave Analytics app, which works with the iPhone and the Apple Watch to provide sales reps and managers with current data on their customer accounts. There are many other examples of work productivity apps that can be partially viewed on a smartwatch when connected through a smartphone, but most analysts don't track the size of that specific app market to gauge its growth.

Ubrani said he's encouraged by Apple's announcement last fall that the Apple Watch can be used to unlock a Mac automatically.

"Apple piqued the interest of many enterprise uses [with that unlock process], since security is always a key concern," Ubrani said.

Other examples of workplace uses of smartwatches include a pilot project by air transport technology provider SITA at Quebec City Lesage International Airport that was announced in June 2015. Duty managers could get flight updates and gate changes delivered right to their wrists on Apple Watches, which was considered quicker than consulting a tablet computer. 

A SITA spokesman said this week that the pilot project “has come to an end” but that the company “continues to explore new applications for wearables.”

Last fall, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer and Resy, a reservation system company, announced an app on the Apple Watch to alert restaurant managers of the arrival of VIP guests, problems with long waits for customers and other matters. The watch works with an iPad that acts as a control center at a restaurant's host stand.

While IDC credits Apple for its Watch initiative within the enterprise segment, a recent poll of 1,339 U.S. consumers suggested that the initial Apple Watch excitement of two years has leveled off.

The poll, conducted online in March marketing tech company Fluent, found that nearly half of current Apple Watch owners don't plan on upgrading to a new version. Only 8% of all surveyed said they definitely will buy an Apple Watch in the next year, while 11% said they probably will.

Nearly half of Apple Watch owners said they mainly use their watch for health and fitness monitoring, while 18% said they use it for receiving notifications and 10% use the device for shopping.The Fluent survey didn't ask specifically about workplace uses of Apple Watch.

The survey findings indicate that "customer excitement for the Apple Watch has plateaued since hitting the market in 2015," a Fluent spokeswoman said. "Only current owners think it's a great product, but nearly half don't plan on upgrading."

When Apple Watches were first introduced in 2015, they were "the hot raffle prize giveaway at industry events … and that lasted for about a year," said Jordan Cohen, chief marketing officer at Fluent. "The excitement around them has fizzled for sure."

The current Apple giveaway item in vogue? AirPod wireless earphones, Cohen said.

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