Smartwatch - wearable companion or independent app platform?

Wearable technologies have started to pop up in a variety of form factors from a wide variety of sources, but the wrist has become a clear favourite in terms of acceptable and accessible location for deployment. It is familiar, convenient and yet something worn there can be unobtrusively masked by a well styled or tailored cuff.

Many wearable devices, however, have been less elegant and perhaps understandably, a lot of early ones are quite clumsy. Some styles and functionality are a bit too ‘cyberpunk’ and have lead to backlash and ridicule eg facial icons like Google Glass. Some are plagued with laughably short battery lives (did anybody think to talk to the Swiss about self wind watches?) and most are parasitically reliant on an external host to feed off for communications.

Largely, this means that many wearable devices are simply ‘IoT on the wrist’. They can identify, track and monitor and with a small screen or nearby smartphone can alert or inform the user. For many this means simple, but potentially useful applications tracking health and lifestyle or for the overly socially connected, simply tracking, tagging and broadcasting ‘life’.

Stepping, beyond health and fitness means more application and device sophistication, which is the point at which Apple has decided to move further into the wearable market (small iPods did have clips, so arguably have been wearable for some time) with the much heralded Apple Watch.

Apple’s huge strength in the mobile sector with both iPhone and iPad has been driven specifically by its app store. Sure the devices are beautifully styled and have cool cachet and appeal, but as many would point out, they are more expensive than most and there’s lots of innovation elsewhere. However, Apple followed others in understanding that the key to the success of any platform, as Microsoft, Sun and others have found in the past, is fuelling the virtuous circle of user adoption, developer engagement, app availability (and repeating).

Apple would surely like to replicate this iPhone/iPad success with its smart watch, which already looks – still prior to mass release – like a very desirable, functional and app-friendly platform. It will no doubt do very well as a lifestyle accessory for the rich (with the high end variants) and aspirational (with the colourful Swatch-alike styles), but there is one element of mobile functionality even this device is missing – independence.

Connectivity to the wider network will still rely on the proximity, availability and battery life of another device, which may be a drawback in certain applications – especially perhaps those with unencumbered, unobtrusive and unfettered business in mind; field, logistics and healthcare workers needing handsfree access to IT or shop floor sales staff not wanting to hide behind screens.

This is one area where Samsung has taken an interesting direction with its Gear S smart watch, which has its own SIM-card slot and therefore can have an independent mobile connection. The big upside of this cellular connectivity is that unlike all other smart watches, which are companion devices to mobile phones (although thankfully they can tell the time on their own), this is a fully capable wearable application platform with a connection that is no longer dependant on another device.

It might be based on an operating system considered unusual in some parts of the world (Tizen), but it does open up opportunities for developers to provide wearable applications of value – this could be very significant for apps for the enterprise, if not for consumers. Many workplace tasks require IT support, but devices used to access it over-encumber the user, and an independent wearable device removes this headache.

Wearable devices are still in their infancy, but already a variety of interesting usage models are emerging. It may look a little futuristic, but applications can be deployed on wearable devices today and make a real difference to both an organisation and the wearer. Any business engaging in evaluating mobile IT needs to seriously consider how wearable devices could have a positive impact – it’s no longer only phones that have to be smart.