My last blog post examined the role of wearables in the enterprise and some of the innovative use cases so far. Now let’s take a look at how realistic that vision really is.

A Look at Wearables Today

As outlined in the above infographic, wearables have been around for decades but have only recently gained popularity among mass consumers. As Misfit founder Sonny Vu put it, “We’re in the first half of the first inning of a nine inning game”—a game in which top industry players (from chip-manufacturers to hardware/software vendors) have finally begun making real strides. Intel recently introduced Edison, an SD-card sized system-on-a-chip that runs Linux OS and comes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth equipped. In addition to introducing several wearable devices based on Intel’s Edison technology, CEO Krzanich announced collaborations with Barneys New York, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Opening Ceremony. Their goal? To identify new wearable technologies as fashionable as they are functional. Krzanich also issued the Intel “Make It Wearable” challenge, an effort aimed at enticing creative minds to explore and innovate with wearable technology. While Intel has been busy innovating on the hardware side, Qualcomm has taken a different approach and formed the AllSeen Alliance, a new consortium dedicated to building and maintaining an open-source framework, one that would allow seamless communication between devices of all shapes and sizes. This alliance is based on a Qualcomm technology, AllJoyn, that automatically discovers nearby devices and negotiates a connection without dictating the use of a specific protocol. Here’s a video of the technology in action. Several large companies such as LG, Panasonic, Cisco, Sears, and Haier have put their weight behind this initiative. Meanwhile, enterprise vendor IBM has identified the Internet of Things as a massive opportunity and made it a part of its smarter planet initiative. Claiming to be the “the only company that delivers an integrated, reliable, and secure platform to meet your IoT program needs today and into the future,” Oracle is offering a comprehensive IoT platform across all vertical markets. As you can infer, while significant progress has been made in the wearables space, several challenges must first be addressed before vendors can capitalize on any viable opportunities.

Challenges for Wearables in the Enterprise

As with smartphones and tablets, wearables in the enterprise will surely face many challenges before ultimately becoming commonplace. The most significant of these include:

    • Privacy – Without a way to manage wearable devices, organizations and employees could run into privacy issues. For instance, the employee who records a private meeting with his Google Glass or the organization that monitors employees’ after-hours activities via their  Fitbit devices.
    • Security – Being in their early stages of development, wearable devices are not even close to being up to enterprise-grade security and therefore pose a threat to the organization. As highlighted in this article, “a global hacking campaign successfully targeted and manipulated more than 100,000 consumer gadgets, including smart appliances, routers, and other devices into sending out more than 750,000 malicious emails… [with] more than 25 percent [of emails] doled out by gadgets from the IoT.” The article also sited that “security is so lax on those [IoT] devices that the hackers were able to utilize the existing software running on the devices.” In the enterprise world this could lead to disastrous outcomes. In this article on Gigaom, Stacey highlights the reasons the Internet of Things isn’t secure: promiscuity across networks, stupidity of connected devices, stupidity of owners of connected devices, and the general great unknown. She also highlights conceptual security models that could make it safer.
    • Fragmentation and the lack of Interconnectivity – The wearables market is completely fragmented; devices are being developed in siloed ecosystems. Unless these devices have a common platform with which  to communicate, we will continue to see an uphill battle in adoption, especially among enterprise customers. TheVerge correctly describes today’s connected home as “a collection of appliances and home gadgets that offer enhanced functionality but won’t work together in concert unless you happen to buy them all from the same manufacturer — perhaps a Samsung fridge, a Samsung stove, a Samsung washer, and a Samsung dryer.  That’s not very smart.”
    • Immature Ecosystem – The wearables ecosystem is close  to nonexistent. With only a handful of apps, the utility of wearables is  still “TBD.” In the manner that Apple’s App Store propelled the successful adoption of iPhones and iPads, a similar effort will be required in the wearables space. Until then, wearables will merely serve as an extension of their owner’s smartphone.

With so many challenges before them, wearable-industry vendors have their work cut out for them. Even as the consumer market gathers steam, it will be interesting to see if wearables are ever truly helpful or remain superfluous.

What’s Next

According to Forrester, it will take about a decade for wearables to become pervasive in the enterprise. To be precise, Forrester predicts:

    • The next couple of years (2014 – 2016) will see mostly pilots and early adoption of wearables, with vendors still bringing out finalized versions of their products. During this period, enterprise wearables will start to be used in healthcare and public safety.
    • Developer ecosystems for wearables will begin to mature in 2017, and apps, back-end software and services for enterprises will become readily available through 2019.
    • By 2020, wearable technology will be common within many organizations, and in the following four years, through 2024,  wearables will become instrumental to how many employees do their jobs.

As companies continue to look to the horizon, and consider pursuing wearables as a strategy option, they should instead focus the bulk of their efforts on current mobile initiatives. Although wearables have come a long way in the last few years, the industry has far further to go. As Gownder pointed out, for the “Wearables 2.0” movement to be successful, it will need to develop richer business models, work within existing institutions, and create enterprise value. Until then we’ll just have to wait for the world to get used to them—especially on the road and in movie theaters.