Mobile World Congress: Are Wearables More Fragile Than Fun? - InformationWeek

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Mobile World Congress: Are Wearables More Fragile Than Fun?

Mobile health apps and wearables on display at MWC are cool and beneficial, but privacy issues lie in wait.

Last week I watched Barcelona battle out a two to nil win against Manchester City in European Champions League soccer, and this week I'm in Barcelona for the champion event of all things mobile -- Mobile World Congress.

To put the massive scale of the conference into perspective, there are approximately 65,000 attendees. That's almost 20,000 more than the attendance at the aforementioned football match, where the likes of Lionel Messi (who scored a goal) parade their skills in front of the Manchester crowd. And while I'm not expecting to rub shoulders with the Argentinian maestro, I do anticipate being blown away by the latest cool tech in mobile, connected cities, and the Internet of Things.

One aspect of the show I'll be sure to check out is wearable computing -- especially connected health, fitness trackers, and health monitors. I'll be able to do this in real-time, since FitBit, a leading provider of wearable device activity trackers, is offering attendees a FitBit FLEX device to experience wearable tech as they pace the conference halls.

[MWC, the premier mobile trade show, will once again show plenty of smartphone goodies. Read Mobile World Congress: 5 Hot Gadgets]

I'll be able to monitor my activity, including the number of steps I take. Then I'll be able check out my results to confirm what I'll probably know already -- that my feet are tired, sore, and blistered from walking across a conference area that's one mile in length.

Aching feet aside, I've no doubt that health fitness trackers are fun and beneficial. If you're an athlete or just a jogging fanatic you can monitor your fitness goals and boast to family and friends via your personalized web page. Or if you're on a weight loss regime you can upload data from your smart-scale to your connected mobile app to check progress -- even using the app to earn badges of achievement as you strive to shed those extra calories.

FitBit Flex activity tracker.
FitBit Flex activity tracker.

Of course, there's an enterprise play too, with devices like Fitbit finding a place into corporate wellness programs; proactively helping reduce sick leave days and healthcare costs, while increasing employee productivity.  

All good you might say, but there are management aspects of wearable health monitoring (both at an individual and enterprise level) that require some careful thought -- especially in the area of security and information privacy.  

At an individual level, for example, I might have no problem gloating about my fitness with family and friends, but perhaps less so in a work context. So along with other sensitive and personally identifiable information, I'd want the data generated by fitness apps (on, let's say, the connected smartphone I use for work in a BYOD program) containerized and private. Similarly, as an enterprise security professional, I'd want to ensure that the influx of health related apps ("health apps" is the No. 1 category on the Apple app store), is carefully monitored and controlled to protect against damaging malware -- checking the security fitness of fitness apps, so to speak.

Apart from the more obvious security issues, the advent of wearable tech, ubiquitous connectivity, and big data may introduce more taxing privacy issues. So imagine a dystopian nightmare where information flows from your fitness device to your connected TV and you're bombarded with ads promoting healthier eating (not that unimaginable) -- or worse, where data is freely transferred to your insurance providers' systems, which can now dictate your premiums and discounts based on how fit you are, how regularly you use your connected exercise equipment, and what food you're eating -- and just when we thought getting fit was fun.

Of course, these types of issues will require closer scrutiny and oversight from government agencies. Only last year, the US Food and Drug Administration issued final guidance for developers of healthcare apps, stating it would only focus on apps that turn mobile devices into de facto medical devices -- like, for example, an app that transforms a smartphone into an ECG machine to detect heart problems.

But, as the convergence of mobility, cloud and big data accelerates, there'll be more privacy and safety issues to consider -- and hopefully we consider them before the first big mobile fitness/health information breach.

For now, I'm going to learn to love my Mobile World Congress fitness tracker. It'll never help me be as fit as Lionel Messi (or get anywhere near his sublime level of soccer skills), but it'll perhaps explain why my feet are so sore.

20,000 steps and counting...

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Peter Waterhouse is a senior technical marketing advisor for CA Technologies' strategic alliance, service providers, cloud, and industry solutions businesses. View Full Bio

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User Rank: Strategist
2/25/2014 | 6:40:51 PM
Re: Wearable rewards
Excellent point WKash - as with any of these devices I belive success depends on the ability to connect (via apps) to other elements that constitute to a fitness regime. Although not a wearble, Withings with their smart scales have achieved great success using this strategy -- not just because the device is cool, but because it's connected. I'm sure over time we'll see fitness trackers become more connected via apps and API's to many other devices. 
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Author
2/25/2014 | 11:54:29 AM
Moore's Law + 3D printing = cheap wearables
Does anyone think that wearables will need to be supercheap and disposble for them to really take off? I don't think that's all that far-fetched or distant given Moore's Law combined with 3D printing.
Shane M. O'Neill
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
2/25/2014 | 10:42:03 AM
Re: Wearable rewards
As wearables become more feature-rich I think they will sail by mobile apps, at least for exercise. A phone is a cumbersome thing to have with you when you're running or biking. Swimming is definitely out of the question for obvious reasons. When running on a warm day, where can you put your phone? It will jiggle around in your pocket and possibly fall out. You could strap it on your arm but who needs the baggage. You can wear a wristband tracker anywhere and not even notice it. I use the Nike+ app on my iPod Nano to track time, pace, distance and calories on my runs and it works well (though it eats up battery). I'm holding out for wristbands to get more sophisticated, but they're very appealing to frequent exercisers.
IW Pick
User Rank: Ninja
2/25/2014 | 6:22:30 AM
Re: Fragile or fun?
I'd agree, especially when for several years the trend has been to add features to smartphones that replace multiple gadgets, rather than branching out into new hardware. Many fitness apps can track paces taken, distance run, time taken, speed and a variety of other factors already. 

To get the general public to really buy into wearables - especially the fitness ones - developers will need to find a way to sell them over their app counterparts. Likewise they'll need to make sure encryption and security are top noth, as one nasty story of people stealing what is essentially medical info from someone's unsecured wrist band, could do a real blow to the industry. 
User Rank: Author
2/24/2014 | 8:21:01 PM
Wearable rewards
The battle for wearable fitness products will likely depend on which data tracking systems consumers are already wedded to. If I'm already keeping track of my exercise regimen and food intake on one of two mobile apps I use regularly  (MyFitnessPal and Fooducate), I'll probably be hesitant to buy a wearable fitness item unless it works with those tracking systms -- or offers a superior experience.

User Rank: Ninja
2/24/2014 | 8:07:11 PM
Re: Fragile or fun?
I'm waiting for these activity trackers to become more feature-rich. They really cannot do whole lot other than pay attention to how much someone walks. 

These should be able to do a whole lot more than that in the future. But right now, they don't do a whole lot other than counting steps and paying attention to when you lie down. 
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
2/24/2014 | 4:52:52 PM
Fragile or fun?
In the tech and security communities, we're generally well aware of the potential dangers that these types of devices could pose. But most people I know fit into two categories: They are either blissfully unaware of security and privacy issues, or they're so hypersensitive to them that they swear off all new technology. Both groups, I think, could learn a lot from each other.
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