Whether or not you are a fan, the launch of a major new Apple product is usually a significant event. They weren’t the first to make home computers, MP3 players, smart phones or tablets. But they did drag all of those products out of the niche market of tech enthusiasts and thrust them firmly into the mainstream.

Which is why a lot of people in business are excited about the potential impact of the forthcoming Apple Watch.

Of course the watch is more than just a watch, in the same way the iPhone is more than a phone. It will basically be a small computer, wearable on the wrist. And that word “wearable” is key to the point I am making. The Apple Watch could be the product that pushes wearable technology into the mainstream – and the implications of that would be enormous.

All businesses are built on data and the huge growth in the last decade in our ability to collect, store and analyse data for insights – Big Data – is leading to breakthroughs in every industry from healthcare to finance.

We explore and interact with all of this data in a variety of ways – often PCs or laptops, or, increasingly, smart phones and tablets. But there are some situations where even today’s pocket-sized number crunchers aren’t optimal, which is why wearable technology will become increasingly popular.

The wearable revolution

In 2013, Duncan Stewart, research director at Deloitte, told the BBC “Someone driving a forklift in a warehouse can’t use a PC or smart phone because they will crash into someone.

“But imagine if they can drive around and be able to pinpoint a pallet and then the particular box they need on that pallet.”

Since then, the enthusiasm in business for wearables has steadily grown. Businesses have experimented with “smart badges” such as the Hitachi Business Microscope that tracks an employee’s movements around facilities and analyses how long they spend interacting with other members of staff, and even how enthusiastically they contribute to discussions. (This does sound scary, but the idea is to analyse the behaviour of the workplace as a whole, rather than monitor the actions of individual staff!)

Surgeons at Stanford University use augmented reality goggles based on Google Glass during surgery, providing information and relaying what they see to other medics in real time. And similar products for industry have been designed around safety goggles – but as well as protecting the eyes, they can scan barcodes, give the operator access to externally stored information, and record movement and biometric data.

This all ties into an idea which is very hot at the moment, known as the Internet of Things. While traditionally the internet is thought of as mainly composed of computers talking to each other, the idea is that very soon everything else – fridges, scales, watches, industrial machinery – will be talking to each other, too. Hence the “Internet of Things”.

Wearables in small business?

Often though, when we’re talking about business uses, these processes still involve expensive, custom-designed equipment which puts them out of the reach of smaller enterprise. And this is why the arrival of the Apple Watch – and similar devices already existing and planned – could be so significant.

For a start it could represent the introduction of a relatively cheap, standard platform for application developers to create solutions to business problems on. Applications for smartphones have emerged capable of turning it into everything from a barcode reader to a drone control interface. As well as utilising the movement sensors of an iPhone, the Apple Watch includes a heart rate monitor to provide biometric readings, which can be used to analyse how stress and rest periods affect employee efficiency.

Even if you have no intention of ever having anything to do with wearables in your business, it is likely to have an impact. If for no other reason that it represents a new channel through which your customers will be receiving information. Most businesses have optimised their websites and online presence for mobiles and tablets now, and if the smart watch repeats the success of the smart phone, they will have to do so again, to cater for consumers who choose to do their digital communication via a watch interface. It’s another step away from the traditional website and email being the standard portal of communication online between buyer and seller, and marketers will have to adapt to that.

Snooping on staff?

Of course as with everything new and data-related, there will be concerns over privacy and security. Employees may be hesitant to allow their movements to be tracked but as I mentioned before care must be taken to ensure that the data is being used to analyse the behaviour of the workforce as a whole, and drive efficiency improvements. It should not be used to monitor and discipline individual staff members and companies that do so are likely to find themselves accused of breaching their employee’s rights to privacy. On top of that, more devices connected and talking will inevitably lead to more potential security vulnerabilities. But historically that has not stopped businesses from pressing forward with their plans to connect the whole world.

Whether your business is big or small, the potential advantages of introducing wearable technologies are the same – increased workplace productivity, and improvements to efficiency. The big boys have been at it for a while, but Apple’s Watch, and the host of imitations which will follow in its wake, could be the platform which marks their arrival into the world of small business. The next 12 months should be interesting to watch.

Are you planning on buying one? Plan to use it as part of your business activity? Share below in the comments…