Consumer electronics firm Apple hit the headlines recently with the launch of high-profile products like the iPhone 6 at its annual keynote speech. One less prominent facet of the keynote, however, was the rolling out of a new app, “Health”, which it calls “an entirely new way to use your health and ﬁtness information”. The company’s foray into personal consumer healthcare is a sign of the growing popularity of the “quantified self” movement, which encourages individuals to collate data on their personal activity, consumption and other variables.
Apple describes Health as “an easy‑to‑read dashboard of your health and ﬁtness data”, bringing together information which currently sits disparate across the user’s device. Users can input such information manually by obtaining it from a medical practitioner or other sources, or can collect it using fitness tracking hardware. “Heart rate, calories burned, blood sugar, cholesterol — your health and fitness apps are great at collecting all that data. The new Health app puts that data in one place, accessible with a tap, giving you a clear and current overview of your health,” the firm also said. Health, a user-facing app, sits alongside “HealthKit” – a platform for app developers to create apps which can access the data from Health and create channels of communication between different pieces of software on the device. Apple’s promotional website uses the example of data on calorie consumption, which could “allow your nutrition app to tell your fitness apps how many calories you consume each day”. In essence, datasets stored on the plethora of health apps users download will now bleed into the user’s other datasets rather than sit in isolation, creating a joined-up virtual health centre.
But launching the new Health app has not been a smooth ride. Apple Watch, a much-hyped piece of hardware unveiled at the keynote, is clearly eyed by executives as the perfect partner to Health, but it is not available until 2015. Furthermore, users who downloaded the app while running iOS 8 found themselves able to collect data, but upon downloading iOS 8.0.2 some reported that the data they had collected had suddenly disappeared. This came after iOS 8.0.1 contained a glitch which prevented apps measuring personal fitness from co-operating with the Health platform. And, as Owen Thomas at ReadWrite points out, HealthKit is typically only available on Apple devices; this stands in contrast to systems like Google Fit, which could in theory work on more than one operating system. But Apple will surely overcome these blips: the possibilities for using the platform are almost endless, and there is a real chance it will go some way towards revolutionising healthcare – and not just on the consumer level, but on a clinical level too. ZDNet reports that healthcare centres in the United States are working on schemes using HealthKit which will allow doctors to track information about patients. One such proposal includes giving individuals who suffer from Type 1 diabetes low-cost Apple devices (such as the iPod touch) to keep an eye on blood sugar levels in the absence of medical staff and relay the data to practitioners.
Concerns about the privacy and security of the data stored by Health are inevitable after recent events. Apple has, unusually, garnered extensive negative media attention recently after claims that data which users had synced with iCloud, the firm’s remote file storage service, was vulnerable to hacking; several celebrity users claimed they had had such data leaked. Information on personal health is highly sensitive, and as a consequence Apple appears to have taken steps towards ensuring that privacy is of paramount importance when developing Health and HealthKit. Apple has banned app developers using HealthKit from allowing their software to store information in iCloud, and developers are also forbidden from selling the data their apps collect to third-party advertisers or those reselling information. Data does not have to remain completely private, however; app developers do have permission, with user consent, to pass on information to medical researchers. By restricting what developers can do with the data they aggregate, Apple is taking a principled stand: the health data market is large and lucrative. VentureBeat cites claims from one data brokerage firm that it brings together data from 100,000 companies (including app makers).
But experts are unsure whether the policy will stick. Owen Thomas told Dataconomy that he believes “Apple’s policy is a bit too draconian to survive in the long term. There’s also a huge difference between truly sensitive medical data and, say, information about workouts which might be interesting to brands like Nike or Under Armour.”
“It’s also not clear who truly “owns” HealthKit data—fitness and health apps are contributing data that they’re gathering on their own to HealthKit. Does Apple’s policy apply to any data that touches HealthKit, or only data that originates from HealthKit? Ultimately, Apple controls distribution through the App Store, so it has considerable sway. But it also wants developers to use HealthKit, so it can’t be too severe in its enforcement of the policy,” he added. But privacy concerns aside, one thing is for sure: taken together, Health and HealthKit have seemingly limitless potential for growth. As more and more people are keen to quantify their health, especially when they can enjoy the privacy guarantees on offer for now, Apple is positioning itself to become a market leader in consumer healthcare data.
The Apple Watch, too, will give impetus to the firm’s ambitions, but Owen Thomas believes it will spur other hardware producers into manufacturing as well, owing to the “high-end” status of the Apple brand. “The Apple Watch’s announced price of $349 puts it in a luxury gadget category. It’s also missing key features that would make it appealing to the more athletic set who might otherwise spend that much on a sportswatch,” he said. “Pebble’s $99 smartwatch does notifications and now fitness features, too. So I think Apple is tackling a small, high-end part of the market, as it did with the Mac, the iPod, and iPhone when those devices first launched.” Thomas also believes “it possible Apple will go downmarket – just look at the $49 iPod Shuffle, one-eighth the price of the original iPod. But this generation of Apple Watch only addresses a small niche. They’ll sell a lot—just nowhere near a monopoly of the market.”
Overall, once the Apple Watch is launched early next year and the other hardware items on the market increase in sophistication, the firm’s dreams of becoming the go-to source for users who want to revolutionise their health may well be realised.
Nick Toner is a History and Politics student at Oxford University, and he recently served as Editor-in-Chief of student newspaper The OxStu. He has also interned at the World Association of Newspapers in Paris and SANE, a mental health charity, in London.
He is passionate about digital marketing and the power of social media, and he tweets at @nick_toner.
(Image Source: Apple)