Over the past year, we've seen big tech players like Samsung and Apple signal their intention to make bigger strides in health. Having the two of the biggest names in technology strengthening their commitment to health wearables is a great sign, but I fear it'll lead us down a path that's ultimately worrying.
In the past couple of years, big tech companies have figured out that the best way to keep your customers from jumping ship is to create an ecosystem of products. Link together your devices and services in ways that are unique, and that third parties can't replicate. That way you're stuck in Apple's walled garden, or on Google's services, or in Amazon's shopping cart.
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This stuff has only just begun to weave its way into the wearable world. Like how Apple Watch only works with iPhones, or how Google Pixel Buds only do live translation with Pixels. These features, at their core, are what happens when one company is in charge of both the hardware and the software.
And you know where great integration of hardware and software is extremely valuable? Health. All you have to do is take a look at the most trusted names in health wearables to see that this is the reality of the game. Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and even Nokia create their own hardware and pair it with their own software. This allows them to take the raw data the wearables wolf down, churn it up using software and algorithms, and then serve it back to you in digestible pieces.
It's not hard to imagine a future where a company releases a bunch of different wearable gadgets that work together to give you a more tidy experience. A good example of this is actually Apple. Right now, it has the iPhone and an ever-improving Apple Watch, which is getting more and more serious about health with each passing year.
We already know Apple had plans for a revolutionary health device, and it's only a matter of time until Apple can miniaturize enough of the technology to make it possible. On top of that, the company has patents for AirPods that can detect temperature, stress and blood oxygen levels. Imagine if you had a Watch that could sense your glucose levels in real time and AirPods that could sense temperature and blood oxygen levels, and then an iPhone that could combine all that data and give you recommendations.
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Then take all that and combine it with the fact that Apple was looking at purchasing an on-site health clinic startup. Imagine if Apple's devices took all your health, fed it instantly to your doctor, who suddenly has intricate knowledge about your daily health and can give you even better health recommendations. Would you ever leave Apple's ecosystem?
It's not only Apple either; Samsung is also dabbling in this. The company is still toiling away on its Simband, which will have its immense health sensors filter into its Gear devices, which still work best with Samsung phones. The company also has its partnership with American Well, which allows Samsung customers to video call a doctor from the comfort of their home.
Samsung, like Apple, is able to utilize the vastness of its empire to bring about new features. For example, if you have a Galaxy phone you can place your finger on the sensor near the camera to get your Sp02 and stress level, throwing that into Samsung Health.
If you think you have to be a massive company like Samsung or Apple to do this stuff I'd like to point you to Fitbit. The company has built out its own fitness platform, and it tends to not play nice with other services. For example, Fitbit's data doesn't import into services like Apple Health. It does play nice with Samsung Health, but only if you want some basic sleep data, none of that neat Sleep Stages stuff.
But what about new startups, you may think, why can't they come along, offer something better and outdo the big players? That's possible, and for a while it may seem like they're about to be the big new thing, but in the current climate it's only a matter of time until a bigger company gobbles them up and uses its tech and services to fortify ecosystems. We still don't know how Apple is going to use Beddit, even as Beddit begins to wind down sales on its sleep trackers. Or even Fitbit using Pebble to jump start its developer efforts.
Once you're in an ecosystem, it's hard to break yourself away from lock-in features like iMessage, or Google Assistant, or even Fitbit's community features. That might be fine for most, but when you start doing that with people's health things start to fall apart.
Health is personal, ever-changing and mostly unpredictable. What happens if you're stuck in one person's health ecosystem and develop a condition that they're not good at tracking, but someone else is? What happens if your company of choice falls on hard times and collapses, leaving your precious health data out in the cold? What happens if the company slowly starts increasing prices and it becomes too expensive to stay in the ecosystem, or the company starts making bad products?
An ecosystem of health products could be a good thing, it could make it much easier for people to get all the metrics they need. But it's also lined with potential disaster, trapping us in a stew that could sour at any moment.
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