Business technology is rarely seen as "sexy." Yet despite the recent focus on the consumerization of IT, the enterprise has often led the way with technology innovations such as the personal computer. And the BlackBerry was released eight years before the first iPhone, the device often cited as a key example of a consumer device that revolutionized enterprise IT.
Companies are also leading the way with wearable computing. Analysts seem unsure how popular smartwatches, smartglasses and other wearable technology will be with consumers. Enterprise adoption, though, looks like a sure thing, and with it could come a dramatic change in how workers do their jobs.
"The enterprise market is where all the action is," said Forrester Research analyst JP Gownder, who has a bullish outlook on wearable computing and writes about it extensively on his blog. "Wearable technology is flipping the consumerization of IT on its head."
Few consumers currently own wearable devices, Gownder said, which has led application developers to focus on the enterprise, a market that promises to be more lucrative in the near term. As a bonus for employers, he believes employees will be less likely to mix and match personal and professional applications on a single wearable device, which means companies should have fewer BYOD-related concerns with wearables than with smartphones and tablets.
Corporate use cases for wearables abound
Eric Johnsen, VP of software developer APX Labs, a company with an application platform for smartglasses called Skylight, said enterprises are more inclined than consumers to spend $1,500 for Google Glass or similar devices because of a more immediate value proposition.
Use cases are "crystal clear" in the enterprise, he said, mentioning that oil and glass companies working with APX Labs are equipping service technicians with Glass to facilitate field repair of costly machinery. "This is million-dollar equipment. They can measure the ROI in the minutes that machine is working versus the minutes it is not."
Similarly, Boeing is using Skylight to evaluate a smartglasses application that would allow employees to easily access engineering specifications and complex assembly instructions while manufacturing airplane parts.
"The glasses make the manufacturing process more accurate, efficient and safer, because workers do not have to turn their heads to look at a paper manual," Johnsen said. "It also makes it easier to identify and correct any problems earlier. It is orders of magnitude more expensive to go back and fix a problem discovered at the end of the assembly process."
Many of the initial use cases for wearable applications in companies involve employees that need two hands to perform their jobs, which often involve a series of complicated tasks, Johnsen said. "They have been left behind when it comes to using computers at work because there hasn't been a form factor that has worked for them."
Software provider Pristine has been offering a solution for Google Glass called EyeSight since late 2013. The company has some 2,000 clients, many of them hospitals or other health care facilities. They use EyeSight for functions such as allowing medical students to "virtually stand on a stool behind the surgeon in the operating room," said Lucas Schlager, Pristine evangelist.
Because of requirements specific to the health care industry, the company has created its own custom operating system that only runs Pristine applications, Schlager said. "Every frame of video and packet of audio is encrypted on the device, and we’ve also done some performance optimization by forking Glass."
Like APX Labs, Pristine also works with companies that employ service technicians who may require remote support. Prior to Glass, technicians generally used two-way radios, smartphones or tablets to communicate with the home office – all of which had shortcomings, Schlager said.
"It was practically impossible for a technician to share 'this is what I see, this is what I hear, this is how fast the light is blinking.' Google Glass changed all that. It has a video camera that rests on your face and sees what your eyes see and, because it's a computer, you can also talk to it," he said.
Salesforce gambles on wearable tech
Enterprise software giant Salesforce is making a big bet on wearable technology. In June it introduced the Salesforce Wear Developer Pack, which abstracts much of the back-end logic necessary to connect wearable devices to its Salesforce1 development platform and includes reference apps to make development even easier.
Application development for wearables will follow a similar trajectory as development for smartphones and other mobile devices, predicted Daniel Debow, senior VP of the company's Emerging Technology division. "Developers are building apps we couldn’t have imagined when the iPhone first came out. I think the same thing will happen with wearables."
Salesforce is already seeing use cases for smartglasses with partners like APX Labs and is beginning to see more use cases for smartwatches as well. The latter devices are appropriate for jobs in which workers require a near-constant flow of information relevant to tasks at hand but also need to interact with people around them, Debow said, mentioning retail and hospitality workers and sales people as examples.
Such workers would benefit from smartwatch applications that would tie into Saleforce's Service Cloud to obtain relevant information about customers and allow them to discreetly retrieve the information while continuing to speak to the customer, he said.
Those kinds of apps for wearables should boost productivity, Debow added. "Sales reps take their phones out of their pockets a hundred times a day, and there is friction when you do that. You have to unlock it, probably find a quiet spot to use it, and then you might start checking email or Twitter. That all adds up and results in lost productivity."
Salesforce partner FinancialForce built a smartwatch app that pushes notifications from its flagship cloud ERP application to a smartwatch, said Kevin Roberts, the company's general manager of Platform and Alliances. He and other employees use it. "It surfaces your ERP notifications the same way you get Facebook or Twitter notifications," he said.
Checking and responding to notifications on a smartwatch is a so-called micro-moment, Roberts said, one that does not interrupt a flow of activity or a social interaction. "It's the height of rudeness to crack open a laptop or bring out my phone when I am talking to someone. This way, I can see what is going on and respond to it as needed while continuing to have a conversation."
ClickSoftware's ShiftExpert is another smartwatch application that allows field employees to virtually fill out worksheets and their managers to plan and publish schedules and optimize their workforces. The distances traveled by employees are recorded by sensors in the watch, and the app summarizes the information.
Many service employees are not monitored by managers while in the field, said Mike Karlskind, the company's VP of product marketing. "They fill out timesheets to indicate when they are on a job and finish with the job. When they do it retroactively at the end of the day or the week, they tend to approximate. If they can do it on the watch as they go, it allows companies to provide accurate billing to their customers and to look for opportunities to make performance improvements."
A wearable was a "natural extension" for the app natively built on the Salesforce1 platform, Karlskind said. It has been downloaded about 4,000 times in the three months it has been on Salesforce's AppExchange. "Several hundred" pilots are under way, he estimated, and two customers are using it for employee scheduling.
ShiftExpert is currently only compatible with the Samsung Gear 2 Smartwatch, but the company plans to make it available for the Apple Watch when it is released in early 2015. Karlskind believes at least a quarter of ClickSoftware customers that use ShiftExpert will want the wearable-compatible version.
Security challenges, device limitations remain obstacles
Despite the plethora of use cases, adoption of wearable technologies will not come without challenges.
There are limitations with the form factors, Karlskind said, noting that both smartglasses and smartwatches do not have much RAM or storage. Pristine's Schlager agreed, saying there is "a loose inverse relationship between the power of hardware and the size of a device so something as small and light as wearables will have performance tradeoffs."
Lots of wearable devices are hitting the market, said Forrester's Gownder, which companies may find overwhelming. Given this, he said it was "pretty visionary for Salesforce to get out in front of it so quickly and establish a platform" that will make it easier for developers to port their applications to different devices.
In addition, Gownder said, "mobile device management is often not available for these devices," although some MDM systems will allow administrators to control Android-based wearables to address security concerns.
"Every time we shift user experience to a different device, we have to relearn how to build software," said Salesforce's Debow. "Developers tend to take what worked in the prior iteration and try to make it fit. Even more than smartphones, wearables are about minimalistic, in-the-moment, contextual information."
Schlager said the biggest challenges Pristine has encountered involves people and processes, not technology.
"When you bring in something like a wearable for heads-up, hands-on workers, there are a lot of changes in terms of business processes," Schlager said. "Hospitals have been doing this kind of stuff for years, although with bad technology. So they get it very quickly. But there is a different learning curve for many enterprises."
Still, Gownder thinks wearable technology will catch on in the enterprise.
"You can develop apps relatively inexpensively on devices that are now also relatively inexpensive," he said. "Yet they are quite revolutionary in their implications for the work that you do and their ability to solve business problems."
Ann All is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today and eSecurity Planet. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade, writing about everything from business intelligence to virtualization.