Apple's Health, Automated Home Services Intrigue Agencies, Questions Remain

When Apple gets involved in a new consumer category, marketers, agencies and developers are quick to take notice. And it was no different with the tech giant’s announcement this week that it is launching new health and home automation services as part of its forthcoming iOS 8 platform.

Its HealthKit system, with the consumer-facing Health app, will collect data like heart rate and blood pressure from multiple fitness and medical apps and centralize it for easier access and possibly more comprehensive analysis of a user’s condition.

Similarly, HomeKit would turn the iPhone into a remote control for a range of home automation devices, allowing users to look the doors and turn off the lights or air conditioning from a single hub instead of accessing a set of separate apps.

Because of Apple’s huge customer base and knack for creating user-friendly products, the new offerings are seen as holding the potential to broaden mainstream adoption of health-monitoring and the so-called Internet of Things. They could also serve as platforms for brands and developers to market products and services informed by user data on a permission basis.

“Once Apple throws their elegant solution and easy-to-use magic at something like that, it tends to create momentum,” noted Jeremy Lockhorn, who leads the emerging media practice at Razorfish. Still, he and other agency executives say questions remain about exactly how HealthKit and HomeKit will work. They acknowledge the challenges in navigating privacy issues around sensitive data, especially on the health side.

Even so, they are clearly intrigued by the possibilities the two platforms represent for integrating client apps or marketing tools into services that become vital parts of consumers’ lives. HealthKit may be the more compelling opportunity of the two for marketers because it means unlocking the door to health data.

During the keynote at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this week, Craig Federighi, the company’s senior vice president, software engineering, said the Health app would allow someone to monitor everything from activity levels to chronic medical conditions in one place. “But not just that,” he said. “You can also use third-party applications.”

Apple is already working with long-standing partner Nike to sync health information with the HealthKit from the company’s fitness apps. The Mayo Clinic separately has created an app to integrate with HealthKit to better track a patient’s health condition.

“From a use case standpoint, HealthKit has interesting things to it,” said Doug Rozen, chief innovation officer at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing (MXM). Beyond a sports-related brand like Nike or Adidas, “think about a CPG brand trying to market better for you, like Kraft or Special K, how they can tap into understanding your key health stats and help chart weight loss or ability to do activities longer,” he said.

He suggested the marketing potential might extend to things like triggering a push notification on behalf of a client in response to certain health data, or even an ad. Exactly how far marketers can go in using health data to pitch products or services is still a bit hazy, but explicit consent appears to be a key element.

Apple has emphasized that privacy is paramount with HealthKit, that users will have “total control” over what apps have access to health information. Selling health data to advertisers or third-party ad firms is also off-limits.

“Apple was pretty clear they see the use of HealthKit to be particular to applications and uses to the app itself and not information that should be shared with data brokers or advertising networks,” said Morgan Reed, executive director of ACT, an advocacy group representing 5,000 small- and mid-sized developers and IT firms.

That said, he sees a place for creating opt-in apps that contribute to better patient outcomes and consumer healthcare. Given Apple’s reputation for focusing on the user experience and restrictive policies with regard to apps, it may define that scope of appropriate apps to integrate with HealthKit more narrowly than broadly.

The parallel HomeKit app for the connected home doesn’t hit the same hot button privacy issues as on the health platform. But the Internet of Things -- the concept of everyday objects and appliances connected to the Web and each other -- is still seen as more than 10 years away from being mainstream.

Even so, a variety of home automation technologies controlled by different apps already exist. Apple, in fact, announced partnerships with more than a dozen connected device makers including Philips (light bulbs), Schlage (smart locks), as well as chip companies like Broadcomm and Marvell.

HomeKit would bring control of these devices all under one roof through the iPhone, potentially making the benefits of home automation attractive to more consumers. “If you’re an appliance manufacturer, now you have this platform you can develop against for reaching a scaled audience,” said Chia Chen, who leads the mobile practice at Digitas.

That, in turn, could drive efforts by manufacturers and other companies to reach people with messages tied to their behavior and usage of everyday appliances. That might include Philips, for example, sending alerts about replacing bulbs or suggesting a new product. By extension, CPG brands might use data from a smart refrigerator to suggest stocking up on certain items.

Tina Unterlaender, director of mobile, at AKQA, suggested, however, that what’s good for consumers when it comes to HomeKit may not be so good for brands. If individual connected device apps are subsumed into HomeKit, they stand to lose visibility and mindshare with consumers. “The challenge then is how do you differentiate yourself from a competitor, how you stand out?” she said.

She and other agency executives said they still have many questions about access to user data, privacy and the technical details for HealthKit and HomeKit. To that end, AKQA has developers attending workshops at the WWDC conference this week to learn more. Other agencies also have teams delving into all the new features announced for the new iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite platforms.




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