Sunday, October 17, 2021

Health isn’t the most complicated thing: Apple’s Health app proves it

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Apple has always pioneered. As soon as Bill Gates showed that great computers were possible, Apple announced the iPod. (In fact, it invented the MP3 player) Meanwhile, the original iPhone demonstrated the power of big batteries, even in the thinnest of smartphones.

As the inventors of these technologies, Apple and Bill Gates are tied together, in the famous quote attributed to Steve Jobs: “I’d rather bet on the carpenter than the rocket scientist.” But Apple and Microsoft share another link: the fear that fragmentation ruins Apple’s connected brilliance. In particular, Apple had to fight a considerable amount of scepticism about its new Health app, which shows the names of vital data (all of which is stored on HealthKit). In the end, it looks like Health was quietly brought into the spotlight as a big hiccup, rather than a sign of late-comer power.

OK, so Health looks confusing on the surface. And Health is Apple’s version of Amazon Prime, so you know the reality is a bit more complex. But the app is impressive as a tool. Your gym might keep records, so your gym clothing might get a mention. I tested it on my iPhone and it reported accurately and quickly. It’s not like the existing fitness apps you use: this one watches your heart rate, your blood pressure, your breathing patterns, your metabolism – all of it. You can do all the data-crunching yourself, but what it has done is to turn an obsession with data into a strategy for actually getting healthier. That’s all great.

Laundry does not rank high among the things that I use my phone for – you’d think it would be one of those things that app developers really put some time and effort into. But that’s because you don’t have to do it. Water and laundry got the Health app because they had to: they have vital stats (and other fitness-tracking forms of health data), but not that which is of use to you.

I know this because when I tried to do it by myself, I found it downright painful. The challenge of going through each area of your life and getting an accurate picture of them is a little like trying to match fiddly song lyrics (I love the song You and Me Both, by Pet Shop Boys) to the slightly mangled tune in a game – you can see what you want to match up, but you need to fine-tune your memory to make sense of it. There are multiple schools of thought on how to do this, but Health’s UX team and what they do here is the best of the bunch. You can search by bands, songs, sports, places – my favourite result was Malala Fund, a charity for girls’ education.

One of the other big pushes from the Health team is tracking you with a ubiquitous wristband called Apple Watch. Last week, the European Commission gave Apple a €13.2bn tax avoidance fine, so it’s no surprise that the watch needs to be sold that way, especially if you’ll be getting it as a gift. The US centre for digital economy and society (CDES) estimates that European sales of Apple Watch jumped 200% to over €1bn last year, with over 11m sales in 2015. At the end of last month, I got my own Apple Watch for a wedding and I can see why so many people are attracted to it. It goes everywhere with you and even calls your parents on the half-hour when you’re not doing something other than sleeping.

Apple might have stuck to this big shoe-in model, but it has gone against tradition by pushing towards a much more open-platform approach to providing services. In order to make sure that it delivered a decent app experience, they had to pull together key components from the apps it has acquired. This includes Evernote and HealthKit, although as with HealthKit the latter isn’t quite as useful as it could be. Perhaps to get out of a sticky situation, Apple would rethink some of the decisions it’s made: Health and Watch are a sign that Apple is moving towards a less closed-door approach to all of this.

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