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Why a health-focused iWatch won't kill smartwatches like the iPod killed audio players

When 9to5Mac reported Friday that an app code-named Healthbook will be a cornerstone of iOS 8 and the rumored upcoming iWatch, you could almost hear existing players in the wearables market fumbling around in their medicine cabinets, hunting for Xanax.

It’s always bad news for the competition when Apple enters an immature technology space. Remember how the iPod killed portable MP3 players in the early 2000s? Indeed. And wearable tech manufacturers would have good reason to take the 9to5Mac story seriously, as the article was written by Mark Gurman, whose Apple rumor reports have an uncanny track record for proving at least partially true.

Referencing anonymous sources, Gurman writes that the Healthbook app will be capable of “monitoring and storing fitness statistics such as steps taken, calories burned, and miles walked.” That sounds like standard fare for any activity-tracking wristband, but Gurman also writes that Apple’s rumored iWatch will have sensors for measuring blood pressure, hydration and heart rate.

sketch todd hamilton image: todd hamilton

Todd Hamilton has conceived one of more stunning iWatch concepts. Shown throughout this article, it’s a simple band with vertically scrolling icons—along with the obligatory fitness-tracking app. See more at at Hamilton’s blog.

Reality check: Current tech is limited

Heart rate monitoring is already well-established in the activity-tracking wristband space. Basis currently offers this feature, and Epson will integrate heart rate monitoring in its Pulsense wristbands. But blood pressure and hydration monitoring? These aren’t simple tricks.

There’s a form of perspiration monitoring in existing technology from Basis and BodyMedia, but it’s used in the service of tracking calorie burn, and not to determine whether our bodies are properly hydrated. As for blood-pressure monitoring, there are already wrist-worn monitors on the market, but they’re big and bulky, and function like standard medical equipment. Sure, it’s possible Apple has a miracle solution that allows for accurate blood-pressure monitoring via simple skin-to-iWatch contact, but I just don’t see this level of miniaturization in 2014.

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The Basis wristbands already do heart rate tracking, but the tech is un-Apple-like in its bulkiness, and doesn’t address blood pressure.

“It’s very unlikely that the iWatch rumored for later this year will feature the capabilities speculated in the article,” Basis CEO Jef Holove told me in an email. “Based on the rumors being reported, my read is that the software aims to integrate data coming from many sources, from user input to specialized medical devices. Apple has historically demonstrated a priority on the design, size, and battery life of their devices, and favors well-established technologies over experimental ones. All of those priorities conspire against the likelihood of seeing a watch like the one imagined later this year.”

To Gurman’s credit, his article says Apple’s upcoming wearable will “seemingly” include sensors for some of the more exotic health-tracking tricks mentioned above. It’s clear he’s delicately painting a picture based on incomplete information. But even if Apple’s upcoming wearable offers only baseline features, shouldn’t every smartwatch and activity tracker company be concerned?

Yes, they should. Any wearable Apple releases will immediately capture the public imagination, and enjoy rock-star status in a category that begging for validation. But Apple’s iWatch won’t outright kill all competing wearables like the iPod killed off competing MP3 hardware. Here’s why.

Google won’t sit quietly

When Apple released the first iPod in late 2001, it entered a market populated by feckless, lightweight competitors. Creative Labs and Diamond—the names I remember best from that early MP3 hardware era—weren’t consumer electronics powerhouses with stellar mainstream brand ID. Other contenders had even less gravitas.

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Do you remember the Creative Labs Nomad? Don’t feel bad. Few people do.

But today we have Google. And Samsung. And even Sony and LG. All are entering the wearables space. And Google in particular has the war chest, product savvy, and platform ecosystem to prevent Apple from taking an insurmountable lead via the iWatch.

The world is currently focused on Google Glass, but I think a Google Now wristband will be Google’s wearables triumph—and it will be inexpensive, simple, and completely unlike anything Apple will show us in the iWatch. Imagine a $99 wristband with a display just large enough to show you Google Now cards in perfect synchronicity with real-time life events. Google’s wristband will push you Field Trip information, navigation directions, Hangout messaging, and other Googly info-nuggets. And of course simple “OK Google” voice recognition will help you get the information you want, on demand.

In effect, Google will cheat in one direction (search and information), while Apple will cheat in another (health and fitness). This product diversity will prevent Apple from dominating.

Now, nothing about Gurman’s article suggests the iWatch will only be focused on fit-tech. We’ll have to assume Apple’s wearable will control music playback, iPhone notifications, and much, much more. But here’s the important thing: Where MP3 players were one-trick ponies, wrist-worn wearables can be defined by a broad and eclectic range of features. Any single wearable that attempts to do too much will be rejected by the public for being too complex, for cramming way too much into a necessarily puny UI (see the current iteration of Samung’s Galaxy Gear). So there’s plenty of room for competing gadgets to co-exist as each one finds its niche.

Apple can’t do this alone

If we accept on face value the proposition that the iWatch is primarily a wellness device—Gurman writes health and fitness tracking will be the “headline feature” of iOS 8—then Apple will find itself in very unfamiliar territory.

toddham iwatch run todd hamilton image: Todd Hamilton

A close-up look at Todd Hamilton’s vision of an iWatch fitness-tracking app.

Sometimes it seems the company can define itself in any direction, but because healthcare is so thematically dissonant with Apple’s current product line-up—media consumption! content creation! Candy Crush Saga!—Tim Cook and company will need help from more serious, sober industry players. Indeed, for life-or-death functions like monitoring blood pressure and blood-glucose levels (another feature mentioned in the Gurman article), Apple will want to seek partners with deeper expertise, along with the antiseptic branding tones that inspire confidence in this market.

JP Gownder, a Forrester analyst who tracks the wearables space, stresses the necessity for gadgets like the rumored iWatch to work in lockstep with the healthcare industry. “Healthcare wearables need to embed themselves strongly into the normative healthcare system, allowing doctors to see and use the data for treatment, to create a mass-market channel, and to get outside of the relatively small business-to-consumer market for fitness wearables,” Gownder told me in an email.

Gownder points to the wisdom of Google teaming up with eyecare insurance provider VSP to support prescription frames for Glass. “Apple would immediately be an incredibly viable player in the healthcare wearables market,” he writes. “But to succeed, they need to learn how to work with new kinds of partners—hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and corporate wellness programs.”

In sum total, nothing we learned Friday about the rumored Healthbook app or iWatch suggests Apple is on the verge of creating the ultimate smartwatch/fitness tracker (there are just too many different ways to express a “perfect” wearable), or that Apple can possibly succeed without a generous spirit of ecosystem cooperation. So the iWatch won’t be an iPod redux. The technology challenges, user opportunities, and relationship-building requirements on the table are just too complex for any single player to roll in and dominate.

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