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 who will need to protect the data running over them.

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

One feature of smartwatches that could benefit business users is their ability to offer quick alerts, which could save people the hassle of fumbling to pull their smartphones out of their purses or pockets when they receive important notifications. Professionals likely to rely on alerts could include stockbrokers, who might want to be notified when certain stocks hit certain prices, or doctors, who might want quick updates about changes in the condition of patients.

Those two examples put smartwatches on a par with personal pagers, which were popular among doctors and stockbrokers in the 1980s and '90s.

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.

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