In wearables, IDC says the little things are going to be very big

IDC says smartwatches and ear-worn technology are about to get enterprise attention

There’s no denying it: Despite years of hype, wearable computing technology has yet to make a big impact on enterprise IT. But if you believe the last IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Wearables and AR/VR predictions, that’s finally about to change. And ironically, two of the smallest categories of wearables seem poised to make the biggest difference.

Smartwatches and ear-worn wearables

Among the 10 predictions in the report, IDC predicts smartwatches—yes, those things that strap on your wrist to monitor your fitness activities, and not much else—will find favor among enterprises in pilot programs designed to “augment or replace enterprise-use smartphones in 2017 to communicate time-sensitive data.”

IDC also says, “In 2019, companies will pilot ear-worn wearable devices that work as digital assistants to improve in-person, customer-facing roles.” If you’re blanking on what the research firm means by “ear-worn wearable devices,” they’re talking about digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana delivered through the headphones and headsets that mobile device users have been relying on for years, as well as new wireless, in-ear devices such as the—now delayed—Apple Airpods and their many competitors. 

Let’s look both predictions in a little more detail.

idc wearables ar predictions 2016 IDC

IDC's predictions for the wearables and AR/VR markets

How smartwatches will conquer the enterprise 

According to IDC, improved cellular connectivity will help drive wider smartphone adoption in the enterprise. Once in place, top applications will include sales—such as Salesforce’s Apple Watch app that lets sales reps quickly glance at customer/client information as they head into a meeting—and operations, where airport ground personal are being given Apple Watches to communicate about gate preparation, plane preparation, etc. without having to take out their phones. 

For IT, IDC says, the rise of smartwatches creates another category that needs to be monitored, as well as even more pressure to deliver high-performance connectivity to all supported mobile devices. IT will have to figure out its platform and application options, whether bought off the shelf or developed in house. Finally, Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) and Mobile Device Management (MDM) solutions will have to be extended to smartwatches, even as many vendors in those markets are still figuring out their own approaches to the smartwatch opportunity. 

Do ear-worn wearables have an enterprise future?

The long-term potential of putting an intelligent assistant in workers’ ears seems obvious.

IDC suggests they could ultimately provide near real-time translation, something that would have vast applications in the enterprise and beyond. I mean, who doesn’t want a Star Trek universal translator? Other uses might include helping in-person customer-service personnel—think hotel concierges—answer customer or guest questions without having to look away to consult a computer or mobile device.

Apart from the continued development of the digital assistants necessary to actually identify and deliver the right answers fast enough to be useful, these kinds of ear-worn wearable assistants will require IT to develop data integration and intelligence layers to make sure the enterprise knowledge base is fully represented in the advice and answers provided by these devices. In addition, they’ll require new efforts in authentication and authorization to ensure only the right people have access to the system and to potentially sensitive private data. 

And just like enterprise smartwatches, full-time connectivity will be a major issue for ear-worn devices, IDC says, with the added dimension of low-latency requirements to deliver a seamless experience. If that’s not enough to think about, MDM and EMM considerations will also play a role here.

A lot of work to do first 

As regular TechWatch readers may know, I’m a big fan of the concept of smartwatches and digital assistants, but less enamored of the actual devices and software currently available.

While it certainly sounds good to put the power of a smartphone on your wrist, for example, today’s reality can be underwhelming with slow, buggy software delivering limited functionality through a tiny, awkward interface. As long as we’re talking “pilot” programs, then sure, it makes sense for enterprises to begin looking into smartwatches next year, but I worry it will take a lot longer before smartwatches become an accepted part of the enterprise technology toolkit.

+ Also on Network World: 4 things the perfect smartwatch must have +

When it comes to “ear-worn” digital assistants, IDC predicts the pilots won’t get started until 2019, which sounds about right to me. While Alexa and Cortana and Siri have some useful functionality, they remain frustratingly limited. But given the intense interest in this technology (as well as artificial intelligence and chat interfaces), they could be ready for enterprise prime time in a few years. 

As to whether the physical “ear-worn” devices won’t fall out of users’ lobes to become “floor-located,” though, I’m not holding my breath.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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