Why Apple’s next killer app is health

The Apple Watch will someday track your sleep, glucose levels, and more, just like it now counts steps and exercise minutes.

Over the past few decades, Apple has revolutionized the personal computer, the smartphone, and digital music, just to name a few. But the company’s next target might be its biggest yet: human health.

That should hardly be a surprise at this point. Those who have been paying attention have seen Apple heading in this direction since before Tim Cook took over as CEO. Probably, not coincidentally, since around the time that Steve Jobs was first diagnosed with the illness that eventually took his life.

Mortality confronts us all at some point. But, to paraphrase the old expression, nobody ever does anything about it. Apple, however, is using its broad expertise in a number of realms to push forward its health agenda.

Apple Watch and HealthKit

The most obvious evidence of Apple’s push for a healthy lifestyle has come from its products, especially the Apple Watch. Health and fitness have been cornerstones of the watch since its incarnation and, I would argue, have also been its most successful applications. With features from those Activity rings to workout tracking to heart-rate monitoring, the Apple Watch seems positioned as almost a Trojan horse to get health into the lives of technophiles. (I’ve lost track of the number of friends with Apple Watches who have seized upon closing those rings every day as a personal challenge.)

But the Apple Watch doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Apple’s Health app on iOS and the HealthKit framework that support it provide a central clearinghouse for health-related data, which other apps and accessories can access and use to provide us more insight about how we’re living our lives. This in turn can help us make better decisions about our health. And that doesn’t even dip into the work Apple is doing to try and bolster health studies with the development of ResearchKit.

Over the last couple years, Apple has made health an integral part of its ecosystem for consumers, and by doing so has not only appealed to those who were already fitness conscious, but also to those who probably gave it little thought before. Apple’s taken a similar tack before: Time Machine for backing up your data comes to mind. As with Time Machine, the Apple Watch took a behavior we all knew we should do—backing up our computers, exercising more—and cut through the confusion and frustration to make it happen.

What comes next?

Nor does the company look to be stopping its health foray anytime soon. If anything, it’s intensifying its focus, if two recent developments are any indication.

The first was a series of rumors about the company developing a way to monitor glucose levels in order to help diabetics manage their blood sugar levels. This is traditionally very difficult, if not impossible, to do in a non-invasive way, but reports claim that Apple has been at work on a method for years. Accuracy and reliability are essential, as people’s lives depend on it, but if the technology proves feasible it could truly change the lives of many folks with diabetes, and open the door to other types of monitoring, like blood oxygen levels.

Also, Apple acquired Beddit, a company that makes a monitoring device that slips under your sheets and tracks how soundly you sleep. It’s been rumored that sleep-tracking could be a major feature of an upcoming watchOS 4, though it also seems that a Beddit-like accessory could be more useful, both in terms of how its sensors actually measure your sleep and in terms of practicality: wearing your Apple Watch all night while having it track your sleep is a good way to run down the battery.

Tim Cook’s influence

While Apple’s health-tracking initiatives might have started in the era of the late Steve Jobs, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the company’s current CEO. Three years ago I suggested that Apple’s health push—then rumored to be called Healthbook—could be the first real product of Tim Cook’s Apple. That’s because, by all accounts, health and fitness seem to be as much a passion for Cook as music was for Jobs.

And though a company as large as Apple is bigger than the proclivities of any one person, the person at the helm sets the direction. For Cook, that seems to be about health, generally, and also specifically about integrating it in a way that meshes with Apple’s mission of providing technology that not only delights users, but makes the world a better place.

In contrast to Google, which at one point stated an avowed goal to solve death, Apple doesn’t seem to aspire to megalomaniacal ends. Instead, the company is focused on helping us make the most of the time that we do have by living healthy, active lives. And if that helps us keep going longer, well, that’s just a side benefit.

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