What Could Healthbook Be?

Apple is moving into healthcare, so the rumors say. Whether it’s the iWatch or Healthbook, Apple has been adding medical, scientific, and fitness hires for the past year or so. I think the writing is clearly on the wall. 

Next month we’ll get the most concrete glimpse of where Apple is headed with regard to wearable and biometric tracking at its WWDC. Speculation is that the iWatch won’t make an appearance but Healthbook, which is rumored to be a big part of iOS 8 to be released sometime this year, will be showcased.


Healthbook is a suite of software that tracks health-related data on an iPhone. I’m hesitant to call it an app, because it’s supposed to be like Passbook, which I don’t think of as an app. Passbook, if you’ve ever used it, is a set of cards or passes that can be accessed quickly by the user.

The only use case I’ve found for Passbook is to easily pay at Starbucks and for airline and train tickets. Passbook is smart enough that it uses geography to add the Starbucks card to my lock screen when I’m close to my home Starbucks or add an airline ticket to my lock screen on my day of travel. You can do other things with Passbook, like pay for items at Apple stores or use store-based payment cards like at Home Depot. I don’t think Passbook has been a great success for Apple.

Healthbook is supposed to be similar to Passbook, but the cards are for activity, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep, nutrition, blood sugar, activity, weight, and even supposedly blood work. The image above is highly speculative, but you get the point that Healthbook is a set of services for storing health-related information. The health information, like everything on a mobile devices, is highly personal.

In a lot of ways it’s like a mobile PHR — it stores personal health information. The major potential difference is that Apple can more easily get data from apps if those apps are willing to share it. Apple is in a uniquely powerful position by owning the mobile hardware and OS. It can use that position to standardize the collection of health data from apps to create Healthbook cards.

The way Passbook works — and I’m speculating that Healthbook will work in a similar way — is that app developers send data (JSON file plus some assets, usually images) to Apple. Apple knows the unique ID of the phone and the user. It creates an installs the Passbook pass on the phone as part of Passbook. App developers can then update passes or cards by pushing new data to Apple.

Apple has tons of iOS apps in its app store for health and fitness, so it can unify large amounts of data for users. But this is where Healthbook gets a lot more interesting than Passbook.

Passbook is just a collection of shortcuts to app data. The cards are for the app that created them, like American Airlines or Starbucks. If Apple simply wanted to do that, why would it not just have Passbook apps for health and fitness apps?

I’m betting Healthbook will be different as a collection of Apple cards that aggregate data from apps, not a collection of cards from Fitbit and Withings and LoseIt! and all the other app makers. If Apple can pull that off, it will be collecting discrete, structured health data. That’s a lot different than Passbook.

Another major difference is that Apple, by virtue of its hardware, can collect a lot of this data itself. Activity and steps are already being collected by apps like Runkeeper. If Apple is building an iWatch with advanced biometric sensors, that data would automatically go to Healthbook as well. By acting as the mobile hub, Apple can also act as the app and connectivity layer for hardware makers that build hardware to connect to Apple mobile devices.

Will Apple be a two-way conduit for data or will it use the same definition of "open" that Epic uses? Apple can certainly share step data and other data it collects (as it’s doing now with vendors like Runkeeper) but what happens when Apple is storing step data from apps like Fitbit? Will it be sharing that data with other vendors and will it require that apps that interact with Healthbook to allow Apple to share that data as it wants?

On the surface, Healthbook looks a lot like Passbook. But, the nature of the data and the means of collection likely make Healthbook very different for partners. Regardless of what Healthbook really looks like, and the agreements around data that Apple puts in place, it will be worth watching how Apple wades into health tracking.


Travis Good is an MD/MBA and co-founder of Catalyze. More about me.

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