There's no doubt that in the highly cynical yet hugely excitable world of business-enabled IT, we've seen a new kid on the block in the last year or so. If the flow of enthusiasm that greeted the idea of so-called 'wearable technology' started out as a trickle, there's no doubt that by now it's turned into a formidable flood. The announcement of Google Glass a year ago1 turned so many heads that it wasn't long before some even began to question whether it, and other similar pieces of wearable hardware, were on the verge of replacing the smartphone2. So what does the future hold for our smartphones, and can wearable technology ever completely usurp their seemingly endless usefulness as a business tool?
The simple answer is, I'm afraid, 'no' - or, at the very least, 'not yet'. The reason for this is that the ability of technology like Google Glass to add discernable business value will be judged on the usability and effectiveness of the applications that they can run. However, to paraphrase a well-known saying, those who come to bury smartphones, not to praise them, will do well to remember one thing. Without smartphones, or similar technology, the impact that applications running on wearable devices will have on businesses will be largely negligible.
Before you mark me down as a Google Glass naysayer, and a doom-monger of all devices that are wearable, allow me to make one thing absolutely clear. The potential benefits of wearable technology to businesses and consumers alike are obvious. It could allow surgeons to access information they need as they operate on patients, perhaps helping to lower mortality rates considerably in the process. More conventionally, it could allow forklift truck drivers to access real-time updates on stock in a warehouse, leading to a more integrated and efficient approach to managing the entire supply chain process.
Realistically, it seems that the key role that such wearable devices will have will be to place a greater burden of responsibility on application developers. Allow me to give you an example. Let's say that, a year or so from now, a man is driving a car while wearing a Google Glass device. Suddenly, a notification crops up in his peripheral vision on the device to show him that his vehicle is low on fuel, and highlighting how far away the nearest petrol station is. You might think that this is a case for demonstrating the functionality of Google Glass to consumers, and in a sense, you'd be right.
However, if you delve deeper and look into the back-end that allows the application to run, you'll find that it will almost certainly be running on either a smartphone or a tablet device that is itself linked to the car. The point I'm trying to make is that in this instance, all of the heavy lifting will be done by the smartphone, not the wearable device. It's true that the Google Glass still acts as a valuable conduit for this information to be displayed, but the real value to the user in this situation has, crucially, been added by the application developer. By enabling the Google Glass API to allow the smartphone application to connect to both it and the car, the role of the developer has becoming increasingly critical to allowing the wearable device to be able to access the information it needs from a smartphone at the back-end.
This may sound as though it's splitting hairs somewhat, but it's nonetheless true that wearable devices, for now at least, will not have the power to support the needs of the business user by themselves. For this reason, the effectiveness of wearable technology like Google Glass for businesses will be limited to providing an ease-of-use conduit that enhances the capabilities of smartphones. Think about it. With limited screen real estate and processing power, there's a finite amount that Google Glass can do by itself.
Clearly, the device will be able to take pictures, dictate emails and record video by itself, but in a business sense, the real value it can provide may well reside with third party independent software vendors (ISVs). The ability to design and adapt smartphone applications that are capable of greater processing power, and serve them up to an end-user that is 'wearing' one of these devices should not be underestimated.
Business users will increasingly demand access to greater volumes of data on wearable devices, such as databases, designs and diagrams, and other data-intensive documents. Put simply, Google Glass and its imminently arriving cousins will not replace smartphones, for the business user. What they will instead be able to provide is the ability to work with them to enhance the experience for business end-users.
At the same time, it's clear that will provide a significant business opportunity for ISVs who have the expertise to enable smartphones to use the APIs for these devices to add even further value. This, in turn, could create an API economy of sorts, with ISVs playing a key role in the ability of businesses to successfully use these devices. It's no exaggeration to say that ISVs could very well drive usage of both smartphones and wearable technology as a symbiotic partnership for businesses.
Clearly, the age of the smartphone is not yet dead, for businesses at least. Some may see the advent of wearable technology like Google Glass as the death knell for these devices. However, perhaps the real truth is that, as the years roll on, they will become less of a 'must have' for consumers, and evolve more into an advanced back-end for business users. We could even see next generation of smartphones being built with the specific purpose of allowing greater usability through APIs to newer, even more portable devices for businesses. There's no doubt that we're at the beginning of a new frontier in wearable technology which will change the way we, as users interact with our smartphones and mobile devices. The smartphone is dead - long live the smartphone!
1. [The Verge, June 27, 2012, http://www.theverge.com/2012/6/27/3121164/project-glass-demo-io]↩
2. [Forbes, March 3, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/haydnshaughnessy/2013/03/03/does-google-glass-spell-the-end-of-the-smartphone-wars/]↩