The writing is on the wall - Apple's getting into the health business. But how far is Apple going to push? And how far is this very fragmented industry going to let them?
While I take much of what's been written about iOS 8, the iPhone 6, and especially the iWatch with a grain of salt, one thing's clear: Apple's expended a fair amount of effort grabbing experts in medical and sensor fields this past year, meeting with federal regulators and more, so they're clearly up to something. Rather than speculating on what specific product they're working on, I'm more interested in whether Apple can revolutionize health the same way they've revolutionized other businesses.
In short, I think they have an uphill battle.
Lots of competition
Let's face it, anyone can introduce a smartwatch or even more so, a fitness bracelet – and as evidenced by this year's Consumer Electronics Show, just about everyone has. Collecting biometric data about workouts, activity and sleep patterns is old news. The Fitbit, FuelBand and Up are so last year.
That's why I'm not surprised by the rumor that iOS 8 will include a new Healthbook app that acts as a one-stop shop for all the biometric information gathered from your devices, whether it's an iPhone or "iWatch." It seems pretty obvious to me that Apple will consolidate as much of this under its own tent as it can.
The pieces are starting to come together. The iPhone 5s introduced the Apple M7, a component inside the device that collects sensor data from the phone to track physical activity. One of the first apps out of the gate to use it was Nike's Nike+ Move app, which can show you when you moved, wehre you moved, how you moved compared to previous days and weeks, and even offers a leaderboard so you can compare your exercise levels to your friends.
On the consumer end, Apple can certainly change things, reducing the fragmented landscape of fitness bands and other biometric data collection devices down to something with an Apple logo on it, something that confused customers might feel more comfortable buying and using than having to order other products from other vendors and download software for.
Apple recently met with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allegedly to discuss mobile health technology. No one outside of that meeting knows for sure what was discussed, but it's another data point to suggest that Apple's getting in the health market.
A messy landscape
Even if Apple is able to pack in more data about your personal health with information on blood pressure and blood sugar, let's say there's a huge difference between collecting that information and actually making it actionable intelligence for health care providers working with their patients.
It'll take a lot more than Apple's single-minded focus to fix what's wrong with medical data collection and usage in the United States. Just ask anyone who works in healthcare, especially if they're on the IT side of things.
The federal government's HIPAA law was supposed to make it easier for health care providers to exchange data electronically, but almost two decades after HIPAA was signed, the landscape of data integration between medical providers is a pockmarked wasteland. Based on my family's experience alone, there are still plenty of doctors out there who end up faxing or FedExing each other test results because there's no secure way of getting electronic medical data between health care providers.
It's a thoroughly balkanized landscape of incompatible technologies managed using defensive IT practices that are in place to reduce organizational and provider liability rather that provide transparency or ease of access for patients. It's a disaster, and I see nothing on the horizon to suggest that's going to change soon.
Apple does have an advantage with doctors shared by few other companies: Go into most doctor's offices today and you'll see iOS devices, either in their pockets or under their arms. Since their introduction in 2010 iPads have become a favorite for doctors.
Some forward-thinking health care providers enable doctors to collect or view data using those iPads as front ends for their Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems. But doctors who don't have access to such advantaged technology still find uses for the iPad, as a reference guide to check for drug interactions, for example, or to double-check medical reference information or to do some sort of Internet-based research.
What Apple does bring to the table is integration. Whether it's an iWatch or a new iPhone with additional biometric capabilities, having an end-to-end system that's Apple-first and Apple-only means that millions of iOS device users will be able to take advantage of it right off the bat, without having to download new apps. That's certainly a huge advantage.
Apple could provide a much-needed clarity to the increasingly muddied waters of fitness devices and bands, but I expect it's going to take some time. Apple will introduce products and services that appeal to early adopters, but it won't be until the market has had a chance to mature before we see more widestream acceptance and an increased array of functionality.
Is that revolutionary? Not so much. Evolutionary? Certainly.
What do you think? Does the prospect of an iWatch or other Apple device that collects biometric data intrigue you? Let me know in the comments.