Apple’s Healthbook may change the game, but does it move the needle?

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As we hurtle towards Apple’s flagship WWDC conference in June, the rumour mill is in overdrive. (But not hyperdrive, yet. That part comes in the weeks before the event…) There’s tons of speculation about what will (and won’t) be announced as part of iOS8’s unveil three months from now.

What has become a foregone conclusion is Apple’s entry into the health and fitness vertical. There are dozens of clues that add up: chief among those is the M7 motion co-processor, debuted in the iPhone 5s. That solves the big problem of tracking steps (and distance), movement as well as calories burned. Many existing apps have moved to take advantage of the M7 (like Nike+ Move).

9to5mac has been tracking Apple’s heath and fitness play for the best part of a year, and on Monday published exclusive details of Healthbook. Sure, the screenshots are “complete recreations” of screenshots (if they were actual leaks, there’d be something very wrong at Apple), but again, there’s a lot that makes obvious sense. Fitness functionality is easy. Sleep tracking too. And the emergency card. Bloodwork (pressure, heart rate, oxygen, blood sugar)? Not so easy. Hydration and respiratory tracking? Also tricky.

There are two different directions Healthbook can go. One is to become a central repository for all this kind of data and allow app developers to integrate into it (like Passbook). So your medical aid iOS app could connect into Healthbook. So too, Nike+, for example. Apple’s done this before and could simply follow the Passbook playbook. Would it allow integration with third-party fitness and tracking devices (like Fitbit, for example)?

And what about the rumoured iWatch (ridiculous name, I know)? This is Apple’s second option – it could go it alone and create its own ecosystem. iPhone + wearable (I hate that word) + Healthbook. As potential evidence of this, 9to5mac suggested in February that there are “more than 200 people working on this project” at Apple. Thing is 200 is not a lot. There could easily be 200 people just working on the Healthbook app (and SDK integration). Again, this approach is artificially limiting. But, having a peripheral device unique to Apple strengthens the iPhone ecosystem.

Say for example Apple launches a US$99 wristband. How many of those would it sell in a quarter? 10 million? 20? At a margin of US$50 (on the higher end of the scale), that’s US$500-million in extra profit? That doesn’t even move the needle. Not that Apple approaches new products and categories like this. It’s just worth illustrating the point.

Maybe Apple does go it alone, but also offers integration to other fitness trackers? There’s so much advanced tracking possible that rival devices couldn’t do it all. The fitness stuff is easy and that provides a natural and sizeable base for usage. The top-end brands and products should survive and Apple could mop up the rest of the addressable market (within the bounds of iPhone users, obviously). The integration with third-party apps (like fitness clubs, healthcare providers) makes sense, but I would imagine Apple will limit that level of integration. The last thing it needs is a regulatory headache.

What we see (or don’t see) in June will be Apple’s first stab at this vertical. Maybe its own wearable device (fitness band or watch or whatever) doesn’t arrive this year. Maybe this prepares the groundwork. When it does launch, there’s one certainty — it will probably obliterate some of the categories of apps in the App Store…

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