Wearable computing hove into view in a big way yesterday when Salesforce.com announced Salesforce Wear, a capability that enables developers to build new apps for teeny tiny screens and devices that you, well, wear. Wearables is a market poised for takeoff. Last year, for instance, Apple cornered the world markets capturing all the copyrights to “iWatch,” which I think was not a coincident. And let’s not forget the things that are not worn but which simply exist through sensors on the Internet of Things (IoT).
But what does wearables as a class of devices mean? It’s time we began asking hard questions because if Say’s Law (supply creates demand) ever had any applicability it will show itself in this still emerging market and we really want to get demand right. There either are, or there will shortly be, wearables for your wrist, your neck, and pocket. Each does something different and each will need software so the question about the killer app, not seen for real since early laptop days, seems to be relevant again.
More importantly, though, you can’t answer that question until you also ask and answer questions about what we’ll be doing with wearables. The long evolution of technology beginning with the mainframe is a story of ever more personal and relevant information. Mainframes automated back office functions, PC’s, laptops, and networks automated rank and file workers and ignited a productivity explosion. Handhelds made us social and computing personal in ways that had never been done.
Wearables is a different kettle of fish. You’ll notice right off that at least this generation of wearables is not intended to do every compute function. Wearables seem to be context specific so a device might monitor your vital signs, but not your golf swing and vice versa. Or something like Google Glass will deliver needed content to your cornea but it won’t help you get into a secure zone.
So very quickly you can see that wearable computing as a class has a great deal more complexity to it than any of the preceding generations of computing. That makes developing for individual platforms challenging and building development tools that can address all of the form factors and their uses, even more so.
Heck, just imagining the potential uses for wearables is a challenge so I was glad to see that Salesforce didn’t just say, come and get it with some half baked developer tool designed to enable you to recreate your GL on your wrist because that would be a complete non-starter.
Instead, Salesforce did some smart things. First, they made available some reference applications based on their developer pack. The apps showcase a number of innovative business use cases that won’t exactly be second nature to you unless you are an oil rig worker needing to fix some complex bit of technology (yes, there’s a reference app for that). Second, they made these reference apps available as code for anyone to see, evaluate and modify in an open source way. This will help speed the adoption of Salesforce Wear and identify missing components and new opportunities.
Finally, Salesforce is not limiting their deployment to a small number of devices, they’re casting a broad net in an attempt to support the fledgling market. Imagine if Microsoft had done the same thing with Office when the iPad was first announced.
There are other things in the announcement that I think are not only cool but needed to make the product take off — like security in the form of 2-way identity flow to keep you from having to constantly re-log-in — what a hassle that would be on a small device. Also it goes without saying that these things all need to connect with one or more mother ships across the wireless web before the internet providers try to chop up this last bit of the public commons.
So that’s that. Now, what does this mean? Are wearables just another kind of hardware that we can use for checking email? I definitely hope not. Wearables represent a new approach to being in the world and as such their applications and the business processes that they support have not been fully figured out yet — and we’ll be saying that five years hence too.
Wearable computing is a new, new thing, a paradigm being born and because it is, its success will be as dependent on a killer app or three, as the laptop depended on Harvard Graphics and later on PowerPoint. Understanding this drives the next question. What kind of world will we inhabit that drives the development of these apps?
Without getting all Kurzweillian on you the permutations can be very interesting. Wearables can deliver content, take your vital signs, prove your identity, and follow your motion just for starters. The implications for me are that wearables will support more independent yet thoroughly connected life styles. If handhelds enable us to be connected from anywhere to anywhere at any time, then I think wearables will enable us to optimize that existence with presence.
So, application development for wearables is a big deal if you ever expect to do more with that fancy watch than tell time and check basic Office functions. But it also marks another turning point in which technology will become a part of your extended life.
Sometime in the not too distant future we will all wonder aloud not only at how we ever got along without wearables, we will also wonder why it took so long for us to fully realize the vision of the 1960’s era Star Trek show.