Apple puts health at the heart of its new smartwatch

After months of speculation, Apple finally unveiled its smartwatch that – when paired with an iPhone – promises to accelerate the use of wearable technology in the health and fitness sector.

The US technology giant is positioning the new Apple Watch alongside the new iPhone 6 and its previously-announced Health app as a platform that can not only encourage fitness by monitoring things like heart rate and calorie burn, but also help people to share data with healthcare professionals.

Those mobile health-related aspects of the new device were only covered as an aside during Apple’s unveiling of the device at an event in California streamed to millions round the world, though that is unsurprising. After all, this is Apple’s first foray into the wearable technology sector and there was a lot of information to impart simply on how the device functions alongside an iPhone in terms of voice calls, texts and Internet navigation.

Moreover, the HealthKit development engine that allows independent app developers to develop software for the platform was only introduced in June and is not due to be ready until the release of iOS8 later this month.

For now, from a health perspective, the fitness functionalities of the smartwatch via its built-in accelerometer and heart rate sensor are taking centre stage, allowing users to measure physical activity using the Activity app and set training targets using another app called Workout.

Data from the watch is transmitted to the iPhone using wireless or Bluetooth and collated within a Fitness app, and the iPhone 6 also sports a new processor that means it can receive and process accelerometer data even when asleep.

The fitness category has been spearheaded by devices such as Samsung’s Gear S, Motorola’s Moto 360, Sony’s SmartWatch and the Pebble, which are all basically enhanced fitness bands with varying amounts of smartphone functionality.

The launch of Google Fit as an Android-based competitor to iOS’ Health – along with Samsung’s Simband mobile health device – should help expand the category. However, it remains to be seen whether these devices will capture the imagination of the public and kick-start smartwatch sales which, to date, have been pretty unimpressive, with an estimated 380,000 units sold so far across all suppliers.

One analyst – Niharika Midha of GlobalData – remains unconvinced, noting that the current smart-watch space is “lacking direction” and Apple’s entry has a number of limitations.

“Apple’s health and fitness trackers are largely dependent on the iPhone’s WiFi and Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities, which is a considerable drawback in comparison to other vendors,” said Midha.

For example, the Samsung Gear S has a built-in GPS and can be used to track activities without requiring connection to the handset, she pointed out.

For pharma, of course, the interest lies mainly in the health aspects of the new devices, and there is already talk of future applications such as streaming diabetics’ blood sugar levels and other biomarkers such as blood pressure to healthcare practitioners, as well as helping to improve compliance with therapies and providing feedback to patients to avert costly hospital visits.

The devices also have obvious applications in generating physiological data in real-time for clinical research purposes.

If wearable devices specific to certain diseases are released in the future, however, then this would be a revolutionary step, according to Midha.

“It would involve leveraging data generated by current smart-watch sensors, or incorporating more sensors, to detect symptoms of particular conditions.”

Despite the potential, there are a host of factors to consider before the technology can enter the healthcare mainstream, not least the question of patient confidentiality given recent studies indicating that smartwatches can leak information, as well as the potentially massive amount of generated data that would have to be handled.

The larger question of whether consumers actually want another device to look after also comes into play, given the relentless trend towards convergence of multiple functions into smartphones in recent years. Of course, Apple has a fertile history of re-inventing niche product categories such as tablets as must-have, mainstream technology, and it may be able to pull off the same trick with the smartwatch.

“Apple introduced the world to several category-defining products; the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO at the launch event. “And once again Apple is poised to captivate the world with a revolutionary product that can enrich people’s lives.

“It’s the most personal product we’ve ever made [with] comprehensive health and fitness apps that can help people lead healthier lives,” he added.

The Apple Watch will be available in early 2015, according to the company, and will retail from $349 upwards, with multiple versions, including one made of solid gold for the more affluent technology enthusiast.


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