Wearable computing devices and the rise of single-purpose technology

Wearable computing can gather data that gets crunched in real time with a device as small as a USB stick. But wearables are mostly single-purpose.

Little did we know when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad as a content consumption device that he was initiating a(nother) trend.

It wasn't the handheld/mobile trend we're already accustomed to but a trend toward use-specific computers. Prior to the iPad, computing devices were multipurpose for accessing data and information and entering it. Everything from mainframes to handhelds and tablets can access and input data in a variety of applications from email to ERP and, of course, CRM. And although the iPad has its famous virtual keyboard, you just know Leo Tolstoy wouldn't write War and Peace on it, though he might use it to catch a score in the World Cup. Devices are more or less for information consumption.

Wearables take the trend further. Not only do wearables make manual data entry optional because they surreptitiously slurp up the data around them, they don't even pretend to be multipurpose for the most part. Some watches read email and access other apps, but if you have any serious intent to enter data, you'll probably do that on your small device, which might also be connected via Bluetooth.

Unlike PCs, wearables don't even pretend to be multipurpose.

Survey the current crop of wearable devices and you will see many single- or limited-purpose apps and if Jobs was right about content consumption, you might say that wearables are about identity more or less. For instance, here are some examples:

  • In keeping with the personal and identity themes, wearables are making their first inroads in tracking health metrics. Fitbit and others can tell us how many calories we burn, our sleep patterns and more. But really interesting health monitoring will require wet chemistry and a drop of blood and, for now, that will be limited.
  • Connected wearables can alert the ecosystem around you -- about who you are and what you might need, a great CRM play. The textbook example right now involves a casino that monitors you and can anticipate your needs, delivering products, services and experiences faster than you can think them up. But that model works in most retail situations. There's nothing to stop an ice cream shop from looking out for you on a hot day if you've been there before -- or if you're a local and perhaps subscribe to its service. And more prosaic applications might involve security, as in getting into a building without having to swipe an ID card.
  • In the same way, contextually aware sales apps can push data to the wrist of a representative, eliminating the need to check a handheld or, heavens forfend, a laptop. This might join marketing to sales more closely, but is sales ready for that? The rep gets important data and can remain in the moment with a customer. This could be really important in high-end retail if salespeople are still employed.
  • Google Glass lets you access a lot of content specific to your circumstances and to record what you see. Customer service, especially the hands-on variety, can benefit from apps on Google Glass or similar devices. In highly technical situations, the device can bring visuals of diagrams, or even video, to the eyes of the service technician without the need to look something up, which saves time and keeps the service person's head in the game, so to speak. The advantage of hands-free access is magnified in sterile situations like surgery in which Google Glass is already making inroads.

As usual though, the apps that will use wearables best have probably not been thought up yet and their emergence will depend on our experiences with the first generation. In this regard, there is a minor conflict brewing between wearables and handhelds. If you can check email on your wrist, do you need a handheld? More importantly, if you have a handheld, do you really need a wearable for any reason other than style?

Chances are that you need both: Wearables are incredibly limited in functionality such as storage, battery life, data entry and networking. But they have strengths, too, including motion sensing. And a trend is emerging in which wearables access paired larger devices for downloads, larger screen space, and Wi-Fi or equivalent broadband computing. It is even conceivable that the handheld, rather than being replaced by wearables, could become the hub or traffic cop for all of the devices you wear, possibly even integrating their functions. Also, in the Internet of Things, the handheld will likely even integrate things like your home monitoring system and all of the other sensor-driven things you have.

The current group of wearables is probably just the opening act for another generation of devices that you wear on the inside, so to speak: implantables. Remember that drop of blood we referred to? Well, we already have implantable medical devices such as pacemakers and infusion pumps for insulin for diabetics and chemotherapy for cancer patients. A little technology added to these devices could turn a relatively sophisticated but dumb pacemaker into a monitoring device as sophisticated as what's being placed on jet engines these days. No doubt these devices would need access to the outside world through a handheld, but that's not a bad thing.

Moore's Law has delivered good, fast and cheap wearable computing, so there's little doubt it will catch on as soon as we figure out what to do with it.

Next Steps

Explained: What is the Internet of Things?

Internet of Things marks dawn of smart objects

Seven enterprise risks to consider with IoT

This was first published in July 2014

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