Apple wants to be the hub for your health data, just the way it became the hub for your music, movies, and photos. But like the world before iTunes, it's hard to imagine what our lives could be like with centralized health app data. To find out, we dug into Apple's HealthKit framework and spoke to some top iOS developers. What we found could change the health care ecosystem even more than we expected. Here's how Apple is about to upend another huge industry.
At its core, HealthKit is a personal health database and tool kit that allows health apps and smart devices to pool all of a user’s biometric information into one location that other apps—and Apple’s own new Health app—can have access to. Ultimately the framework enables your iPhone to paint a more precise picture of your overall wellness since it brings together, for example, your blood pressure data from one app with your weight data from another app.
"Apple seems to be taking a smart approach to the quantified health market," says Jim Taschetta, CMO at iHealth Labs, makers of everything from smart body scales to fitness trackers to blood pressure and glucose readers. "Health care is a complex and vast ecosystem and it makes sense for Apple to enter in a way that allows for collaboration across the system. It doesn’t benefit by trying to draw parallels to how Apple entered other market segments; there are a lot of elements in the health care ecosystem that cannot be replaced by a single device. Apple’s HealthKit is really about making the health ecosystem more efficient and effective."
"We were excited when they unveiled their approach," says Jason Jacobs, cofounder of the wildly popular RunKeeper app. "We have big aspirations to help people lead more active lives, and having more frictionless access to data from lots of applications and devices will only help us serve more people in more effective ways."
For developers like Jacobs, the biggest technological advantage of HealthKit is its role as a central database that collects a user’s health data and can dole out that health information with just a few lines of code. Because of this, health app developers can now gain easy access to a wide array of a user’s health metrics without the need to build in direct metric-specific data gathering tools or prompts into their apps themselves.
For example, a fitness tracker that keeps track of your daily movement activity often also shows you how many calories you’ve burned. But total calorie burn is dictated not just by your activity levels, but also by your body weight. Instead of that fitness tracking app having to prompt a user to keep their weight information current in the app, it can now simply pull your weight data from HealthKit if, for example, you already step on a wireless body scale each morning. The result is a more accurate, real-time overview of your health and wellness.
Yet HealthKit’s advantages aren’t only found in its data sharing capabilities. IHealth Labs’ Taschetta says perhaps the biggest key advantage of Apple's entry into the health tech space is the company’s ability to attract enormous amounts of attention, resources, and awareness to the sector.
"Their very presence will significantly accelerate and advance our collective approach to digital health care," says Taschetta. "Healthkit can potentially help iHealth's mobile health solutions connect more broadly and quickly into the health care ecosystem at large. If HealthKit becomes one of the standards for data sharing and integration, it makes iHealth's mobile solutions more valuable—by allowing data collected by iHealth users’ devices to be integrated with their other health information—and providing a more holistic and robust view of a personal health profile."
"Having a company like Apple educating everyone on why this stuff matters can help the whole category become mainstream faster," agrees RunKeeper’s Jacobs, who says that now thanks to HealthKit his developers can spend a lot more time "on building out more personalized guidance [like goal settings, training plans, et cetera], and incorporating more types of data into that guidance framework, [which] can help people get better results across more of the things they care about."
"The consumers benefit from this as well since it can give them a central place to control which apps they are allowing to access their data, rather than them having to manually connect each app to one another individually," he says.
But despite HealthKit’s advantages to developers and, ultimately, their users, it’s clear Apple’s new health framework is in its beginning stages—as is the company’s entire foray into the health tech market.
Of particular significance to developers is the fact that HealthKit only solves problems for developers who work solely in iOS’s ecosystem. Yet many of the most popular health tech devices and apps also run on Android—the most widely used mobile OS in the world.
"HealthKit does not completely solve for use-cases that need to work across iOS and Android," says Jacobs. "While it may be common for someone to stick with either iOS or Android, the freedom to switch between mobile OS's could be important to people. There are also features and use-cases such as social, collaborative, and competitive [tracking] that need to function across the two mobile platforms as well."
Of course the primary buzz surrounding HealthKit isn’t only about the framework’s limitations and benefits. It’s where the most powerful and successful tech company the world has ever seen is going with its burgeoning health tech initiative. Not many developers I spoke with believe Apple is content with only providing software frameworks for the rapidly expanding health tech industry.
"I wouldn't bet on Apple as a pure software/platform enabler and I'm confident they'll try to gain more and more dominance also on the bio-sensing ‘form-factors’ wearables as well, such as smart watches, earbuds, and smartphones," says Omri Yoffe, CEO of LifeBEAM, maker of some of the world’s most advanced bio-sensor equipment and devices in everything from the consumer to defense aerospace industries.
"I believe that at this stage it'll be a wise move from their side to throw HealthKit out there in order to get a first dry run and starting to build their new ecosystem, mainly with both medical integrators/operators and also with applicative players such as app [developers] and device [makers]. Still, [that] doesn't say they won’t integrate their leading devices very strongly, very soon."
Indeed, virtually every developer and tech pundit expects Apple to enter the health tech hardware market sooner rather than later via the rumored iWatch, a wearable device laden with all types of biosensors.
But for now, there is simply HealthKit. And developers are more than fine with that.
As Steve Kusmer, cofounder of Abvio, maker of some of the most-well received fitness apps in the App Store told me, "Apple is doing what Apple does best: building excellent products and platforms. Whatever wearable device Apple announces will do more than just display notifications from an iPhone. The hires they've made in health and sensor technology indicate that health and fitness is a priority. We look forward to combining Apple's innovations with our innovations to help our users live longer and healthier lives."
[Image: Flickr user Shannon Kringen]