Smartwatches at work: Boon or bane for IT?

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

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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.

Samsung Gear Live
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.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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