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Apple’s HealthKit: Will It Be the VHS or the Betamax of the Quantified Self Industry?

Wendy Blackburn

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Apple’s forthcoming HealthKit app framework represents a novelty: a uniform, standardized personal health data platform. To date, digital health data has been fragmented: thousands of health-related apps, hundreds of providers of electronic health records, and scores of wearable devices — all working to measure and store health data. Is Apple’s sheer scale such that HealthKit can become a centralizing platform, winning over the masses and bringing coherence to the quantified-self universe? Maybe. But there’s plenty of reason to think that this may not be the be-all, end-all.

Kids, as background for this article-long analogy: In Ye Olde Twentieth Century, Sony’s Betamax was one of the first types of videocassettes, which allowed consumers the striking new ability to use televisions to record and watch content at a time of their choosing, versus only having live programming. However, Betas were rendered obsolete when JVC’s VHS technology became the standard, despite glowing predictions otherwise.

HealthKit Is Just Another Betamax: Big Fanfare, No Staying Power

As Aaron Carroll said in The New York Times about HealthKit, “…issues surrounding the technology pale in comparison with those surrounding people themselves. In 2009, Charles Friedman proposed a ‘fundamental theorem of biomedical informatics.’ It stated that a human working with a resource like information technology is better than a human alone. But it also stated a corollary, that people are more important than technology. This is a key point. Real change happens when people change their behavior, not when new technology appears.”

Carroll points out the obvious: HealthKit won’t help anybody without an iPhone. So to whatever extent HealthKit will revolutionize health, it will be a revolution for less than a quarter of Americans, bypassing the poorer, nonwhite population. Perhaps, then, it’s too early for some of the breathless predictions we’re seeing about it changing the world.

Furthermore, strong competitors are already in the ring. Android devices have Google Fit, and WebMD has launched its Healthy Target app to collate data from some of the most popular wearables, analyze it and provide practical recommendations.

So it’s an interesting move for a big company, but it won’t mean a thing to the vast majority of consumers. How, then, can we say it’s changing the world?

HealthKit Will Be a VHS: The Platform That Makes the Industry Possible

Think of HealthKit as a roundtable around which Apple apps sit together and, if they want, share data. Before, each was isolated in a separate locked building. Now, they’re allowed to make introductions and work together. The importance of this ability is hard to understate.

As a result, a great deal is being said about what HealthKit and the Health app mean. (And obviously, we’re among those doing a lot of the talking.) An article in Medical Marketing & Media was bullish on HealthKit, claiming “Apple Will Transform Pharma” (source). The argument is that the common platform and improved programming language will rocket app development into hyperspeed, force productive conversations about data privacy, and “bring digital strategy and analytics to the front of the room to lead the tactical planning.”

I’m not sure I’d like to lay money on all that, but the promise is at least there, and to me, that’s why HealthKit matters. Can I predict whether Apple will be the dominant player in mobiles or wearables or digital health in 15 years? Certainly not. I wouldn’t have guessed their stature today back in 1999. But I think the question is less about decades of market domination and more about, yes, changing the world.

I don’t still have any content saved on a VHS tape anymore or the player to use them. That doesn’t mean that videocassettes didn’t change the world. We consume visual entertainment in an entirely different way than we did before them. Getting one common technology platform for a new way of doing things is what changed everything, and that’s what I see HealthKit doing for digital health data.

Let’s Stay Tuned

We do believe that Apple’s entry into the world of the quantified self is an important event. But will HealthKit be the catalyst that makes personal health monitoring an automatic part of most people’s lives? If HealthKit comes online with even some of the strategy and panache for which Apple is known, it can validate, legitimize, popularize and democratize the quantified self industry in a way no other vendor or developer has. Will HealthKit gain a monopoly? Too soon to say. Will it change the world? Possibly. But there’s no denying that it’s changing the game.



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By Wendy Blackburn on 07/01/2014 @ 13:49:20 PM

So upon posting this blog, we polled a few of the younger folks on our team if they knew what a Betamax was. Their answers: Caleigh: "Yeah. It's a health supplement, right?" Sarah: "It sounds like hairspray." It's official. I'm old. Anyone else get the analogy???

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