Mark Gurman over at 9to5Mac scored a mega-scoop earlier this week when he posted screenshots of Apple's rumored Healthbook app.
As the screenshots above depict, Healthbook appears to be positioned as a one-stop shop for all of a user's health and fitness needs. Indeed, Re/Code on Wednesday published an extensive post detailing how Apple will leverage Healthbook to assert itself as a new platform for digital health.
That's all well and good, but often glossed over amid the speculation surrounding Gurman's remarkable scoop is a serious discussion regarding where all of the data in the Healthbook app will come from.
To this end, there are two likely scenarios to consider. One, Healthbook could draw upon information gleaned from a wearable device produced by Apple, such as an iWatch. Or two, Healthbook will aggregate health information from a variety of third-party apps and devices.
If it's the latter, Healthbook will be far from exciting.
Healthbook as a unifying interface isn't compelling
If Apple positions Healthbook as a unifying interface for products capable of measuring health vitals, I fail to see how this is a compelling feature in the slightest. What's revolutionary, let alone interesting, about introducing an app that only provides utility via costly third-party purchases? Even if we factor in Apple's M7 motion co-processor, that still leaves lots of data left to be supplied by third parties.
More importantly, medical devices capable of measuring metrics like blood pressure and glucose levels with corresponding iOS apps already exist. To that end, Healthbook in this scenario doesn't provide anything new or exciting.
Even if Apple bakes into Healthbook the ability to monitor steps taken, sleep patterns, and calories burned during exercise, it really amounts to nothing more than an aggregation of features from standalone and already popular apps like Map My Run and Sleep Cycle.
From the name right down to the card-like interface, Healthbook appears to be a variant of Passbook, an app which hasn't exactly taken the world by storm. While I enjoy Passbook, one hesitates to say that it has yet to become the "key feature" Tim Cook said it was back when iOS 6 was unveiled. When Passbook works, its very nice, but there's no getting around that it's utility is entirely dependent upon third-party support.
In a similar vein, a Healthbook app whose utility largely depends upon third-party support leaves much to be desired. What's the point of Apple dangling all those Healthbook cards in front of users if the majority of them require external hardware?
As a result, I believe that for Healthbook to truly be compelling, Apple will have to pair it with a wearable device of some sort.
Healthbook paired with an iWatch? More exciting, but let's keep expectations to a minimum
If we look at all of the cards in the leaked photos of Healthbook, the number of vitals tracked encompass everything from blood sugar and blood pressure down to oxygen saturation and hydration.
To believe that a wearable Apple device will be able to track all of these variables wholly ignores the way Apple operates, not to mention the current limitations of medical science.
I've previously explained why the iWatch itself will not be able to measure a user's glucose levels. Recall that brilliant engineers and scientists at innumerable company's have literally been trying to solve the puzzle of non-invasive Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) for decades. To think that Apple will be able to offer up a solution in this regard with a team largely assembled during the last year and a half is beyond unlikely.
Similarly, given the current state of Hydration sensor technology, I wouldn't bet on Apple embedding such sensors into a wristwatch-sized device anytime soon.
But what about all those biomedical sensor experts Apple hired?
There's no question that Apple has made a number of intriguing medical related hires over the past 18 months, assembling an impressive team of scientists and biomedical engineers with deep experience in medical sensors. Notably, many of the folks Apple hired have strong backgrounds in non-invasive CGM. On this note, I can now confirm that a number of former InLight Solutions employees now work for Apple in some capacity where I'm told their work likely centers on general wearable monitoring systems. In case you're unfamiliar, InLight Solutions has focused on developing sensor-based measurement technologies "for life science applications." Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the company's core research areas centers on non-invasive CGM.
This, however, shouldn't be taken as proof positive that the iWatch will be a sensor-laden super machine. In fact, I heard from a reliable source that Apple at one point did in fact begin researching non-invasive CGM before dropping the initiative after discovering how challenging and daunting the task truly was.
That said, it stands to reason that Apple's team of biomedical experts will be applying their expertise in sensor technologies in other areas. On this note, MobiHealthnews writer Brian Dolan, citing his own inside sources, has written that the iWatch's "technological capabilities will be simpler than rumors have indicated" and that many of Apple's recent hires are there to "ensure that the health-sensing capabilities" of the metrics the device does measure will be extremely accurate.
The Siri case study: Apple's penchant for shedding features
It's also important to keep in mind that the companies and technologies Apple acquires often manifest themselves in more narrow forms than people might otherwise anticipate.
The most obvious example is Apple's 2010 purchase of Siri. Lo and behold, when Apple finally re-introduced Siri with the iPhone 4s about one year later, much of the app's more intriguing functionality had been stripped away. Since then, Siri's feature set has slowly but surely expanded, but the example goes to show that Apple tends to take an iterative approach more often than not.
The underlying point here is that the technology Apple acquires, not to mention the resumes of the employees it hires, doesn't always correlate with what a finished product looks like.
Why Healthbook needs the iWatch
As a standalone app, Healthbook is a nice feature that may certainly be convenient for health-minded folks. What it isn't, however, is earth shattering. But if Apple pairs it with an iWatch-like device, Healthbook will be able to passively accumulate data from a device that's always being worn by a user. Though we often take our smartphones everywhere, it's not always on us in the way that a wristwatch is. To that end, an iWatch is much more beneficial for tracking items like steps taken and sleep patterns than a phone is.
Thankfully, there's a lot of evidence pointing to Apple releasing a wearable device at some point in the future. Not only are wearables a product category currently experiencing an incredible upswing in popularity, but Tim Cook has been up front about wearable technologies being ripe for exploration.
"The whole sensor field is going to explode," Cook said during last year's All Things D conference.
What's more, given the number of biomedical hires Apple has made, not to mention Tim Cook all but assuring us that Apple will enter a new product category in 2014, it's hard to believe that Healthbook will be released as an app independent of an Apple wearable device.
Looking ahead to iOS 8
Healthbook aside, one interesting area Apple may potentially enter into with iOS 8 is mobile payments. More on that to come...