For the past several weeks, mostly thanks to dogged reporting from the team over at 9to5Mac, we have learned that Apple has been on a hiring spree of digital health engineers and scientists, assumedly for its rumored wristworn device, commonly referred to as the iWatch. That publication also first reported the rumor that Apple was developing an app called Healthbook, which would help iPhone and iWatch users better organize and analyze their personal health and wellness information.
After talking to my own sources — who have limited but direct knowledge of Apple’s plans for the iWatch and Healthbook — I’ve compiled the list below of scoops, speculations and predictions about Apple’s iWatch and the Healthbook app.
There are more than 200 people working on this project. While there have been many reports about some of the hires Apple has made over the course of the past year, our source says there are actually more than 200 people working on this project, which they say indicates this launch is much bigger than just a new wristworn device.
iWatch is a peripheral device, not a primary one. The iWatch is also not a primary device, a source says, but a peripheral one. That means it will require connectivity to a smartphone for its full functionality. While I can imagine embedding cellular into such a device — assuming it has some health sensing capabilities — is likely not possible yet because of power constraints, WiFi-connectivity might mean the device is as much a primary device as most dedicated fitness tracking devices are today. But will the iWatch be a tiny smartphone on your wrist? Our source says no.
Technological capabilities will be simpler than rumors have indicated. 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.
Meeting the FDA was about remaining unregulated. 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.
The Healthbook concept is right on but may not be the real name. One of our sources said the main story here is Healthbook — a name they hadn’t heard before the 9to5Mac report — but which they said was mostly conceptually the same as the app reported about. Apple’s health app is a move to help boost the ecosystem of health app developers and health wearable makers. It will likely evolve into a repository for health and fitness information — and where allowable by the regulators — provide feedback and analysis of that data. Apple knows which health apps are gaining traction and because it has distribution deals in place with many of the device makers — which sell through Apple’s brick-and-mortar stores and its online store — Apple has a sense of which companies are doing well. The launch of Healthbook could help boost the many fledgling device companies and sensor-focused research initiatives at universities around the country.
Skeptical of claims about hydration tracking. One of the fields previously reported as a part of the Healthbook feature set was “hydration monitoring”, which one of our sources was highly skeptical about. While there are a number of apps that aim to make it easy for iPhone users to manually log the number of glasses of water they drink each day, the implication was that the iWatch somehow tracks this via a sensor. Maybe one of the third party sensors mentioned above would be needed to track that. Perhaps we’ll see a commercial launch of MC10’s hydration sensor from the Apple WWDC keynote stage later this year?
Apple’s focus is not on the technology, but on the experience of it. Given the rampant proliferation of wearables — especially those focused on fitness and health tracking — Apple would probably need to cut through the noise to shake current leaders Fitbit, Jawbone, and Nike. Our source says that Apple’s pitch will be much more focused on the experience that iWatch and Healthbook enable and less so on the sensors and other technologies that make them possible. Apple’s opportunity is to make health tracking a mass market behavior, our source says, and not just something that data-obsessed types are interested in. This is a common refrain, but I think many of the health tracker apps and device companies have already made inroads into mass market appeal. Apple could push it much further, of course. To accomplish this, Apple has hired big name design-focused types, including the former CEO of Burberry, to lead its retail strategy.
Healthbook to focus on exercise, diet, sleep, stress, medication adherence — maybe women’s health. Healthbook will have a number of areas of focus, including exercise, diet, sleep, stress, and medication adherence. It also seems like that the app will include tracking for women’s health and pregnancy tracking features, too. 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.
The rumored Healthbook app might be considered a next generation Google Health or Microsoft HealthVault. There are plenty of differences already apparent based on the rumors between these initiatives, but if Healthbook does launch, that framing will be a tempting one.