We've seen flurry of iWatch related rumors spring up in the past few weeks, with 9to5Mac doing a great job of keeping us up to date with all of Apple's interesting hires. Earlier today, MobiHealthNews published a treasure trove of information about Apple's iWatch project, some of it new and some of it corroborating what we've already heard. While you may not have heard of MobiHealthNews, the website has long been a great resource for up-to-date news and rumors in the mobile health space. That said, it's still worth taking these nuggets with a grain of salt.
Writing for MobiHealthNews, Brian Dolan relays that there are now more than 200 people working on the rumored iWatch initiative. You might recall that an initial Bloomberg report from February of 2013 relayed that there were 100 people on the project. That the project has grown since then makes a whole lot of sense, given some of the top-tier medical and engineering talent Apple has brought on in recent months, such as Todd Whitehurst, who is currently a director of Hardware Development at Apple.
Another notable hire was Ueyn Block, who came to Apple from C8 MediSensors this past March. And while we typically only hear of the big-name hires at Apple, the company has reportedly snatched up quite a few engineers in hiring bursts that don't often make headlines.
For example, Gigaom reported the following this past July.
During a phone call, the former [C8 MediSensors] CTO told us that the company broke down because the glucose-level-analysis technology was facing issues surrounding the consistency of data readings. When the company dissolved, Apple moved aggressively to hire several C8 MediSensors directors and engineers, including designers and scientists that specialize in machine learning (a form of artificial intelligence that focuses on interpreting forms of data)...
Adding some more detail to the iWatch rumor mill, Dolan, citing MobiHealthNews' own sources, writes that the iWatch is being positoned as a peripheral device that will require connectivity with an iPhone. If true, this would make sense given Apple's propensity to push software as a means to increase hardware sales. Similarly, by not releasing the iWatch as a standalone device, it can not only enhance the device's functionality, but also attract more folks into the iOS ecosystem and drive demand for newer iPhone models.
So what about the iWatch's capabilities?
Dolan writes that while Apple has hired folks with impressive biomedical and health sensor experience, the iWatch's ability as an all-knowing health sensor device may be a tad overblown.
Since reports have emerged that Apple has hired engineers and sensors who have previously worked at passive glucose sensor companies and ingestible sensor companies, it’s no surprise that some are expecting advanced sensors in the iWatch. A source tells us that the team Apple has assembled is intended to ensure that the health sensing capabilities of the device are efficacious. Some fitness tracking devices available today primarily give users feedback in the form of an arbitrary points system — like Nike Fuel. Apple will likely not do this, but instead focus on real metrics like calories. Having a team with such advanced pedigrees will help ensure Apple’s device is accurate. Don’t expect glucose sensing though.
Will it be FDA regulated?
A few days ago, 9to5Mac's Mark Gurman alerted us to the fact that some senior Apple executives, including Jeff Williams and Bud Tribble, met with FDA officials back in December of 2013. While this suggested to many that the iWatch will, in fact, be an all-powerful health sensor device, Dolan's sources indicate that the meeting was merely to keep the iWatch an unregulated device.
Apple is likely not planning to have the iWatch or the rumored Healthbook app to be cleared by the FDA. The meeting with the agency was likely to review the FDA’s recently published final guidance document on mobile medical apps. Keeping the Healthbook app on the right side of FDA regulation means the app won’t be able to offer too much in the way of analysis for medical data.
Since it will likely include some chronic condition management features thanks to integration with data from some third party FDA-cleared medical devices, it would likely display that kind of data too. While it is a little more complicated than this, one way to think about it: As long as Apple doesn’t analyze the data from a regulated medical device, it can still display it in its app without having to get Healthbook cleared as a Class II medical device.
Now, as for the Healthbook app first brought to light by Gurman, Dolan's own sources corroborate this, though they weren't familiar with the Healthbook moniker specifically. Functionality-wise, we can expect the Healthbook app to focus on metrics such as "exercise, diet, sleep, stress" and medication adherence. Indeed, word spread last week that Apple had recently hired a sleep expert from Philips. Dolan further writes that the app may include a feature for women to keep tabs on their "health and pregnancy."
There's no question that wearable technology seems to be an area exploding in popularity in recent years, with mounting evidence suggesting that it's only a matter of time before Apple itself enters the space. That said, all of the speculation that the iWatch, at least in its first iteration, will be the be-all-end-all for wearable health monitoring is perhaps misplaced. Apple's products improve slowly but surely over time. Indeed, it's a rather slow burn. Just look at the first iPhone, for example -- it lacked basic functions such as GPS and cut-and-paste. So while the iWatch may do amazing things in the future, the first iteration, according to these unverified sources, will try and simply do a few things extraordinarily well -- a credo Tim Cook has echoed time and time again.
As to some other notable names Apple has brought in-house in recent months, there's Michael O'Reilly, M.D., who formerly served as the Chief Medical officer at Masimo; Jay Blahnik, who helped consult Nike on the Nike FuelBand and the launch of Nike+Running; Nancy Dougherty, who previously served as a Hardware Lead at Sano Intelligence and helped design a "wearable sensor system"; and Ravi Narasimhan, who previously served as a VP of R&D at Vital Connect, where he was responsible for "biosensor technology and algorithms for remote physiological monitoring with wearable medical devices."
And just when might we expect to see an iWatch type product hit store shelves? Well, that's anybody's guess considering how Apple never announces or even confirms the existence of a product until it's ready to go. That notwithstanding, Tim Cook recently told the Wall Street Journal that the company is planning to enter new product categories in 2014.
We don’t believe we can do things at the level of quality and link things as we want to between hardware, software and services so seamlessly if we do a lot of stuff. So we’re going to stick with our knitting with only doing a few things and doing them great. There will be new categories and we’re working on some great stuff. We’re not ready to talk about it. We’re really working on some really great stuff. I think no one reasonable would say they’re not a new category.
Lastly, the iWatch photo above is a concept design from the talented Todd Hamilton.