Apple vs. Google: An mHealth Face-Off

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Industry observers like myself have often painted the competitive mHealth landscape with a brush that wages computer manufacturer Dell and software behemoth Microsoft versus Apple--the reigning mobile healthcare champion. However, the real battle for the heart, mind and soul of the still-emerging mHealth market places Apple and search engine giant Google squarely in the commercial trenches.

We're all familiar with the plethora of health and medical apps available in the two most popular commercial app stores: Apple iTunes and Google Play. Not to mention the fact that Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems dominate the smartphone world, though iOS has traditionally trailed Android in terms of market share globally. 

Yet, Apple's iPhone and iPad have set the standard for other mobile devices in healthcare. Doctors, in particular, simply love their iPhones and iPads. But, now, the mHealth war between Apple and Google appears to be entering a new battlefield, namely wearable devices. 

At the center of Apple's efforts in this area is its long-awaited iWatch, a wristwatch-like computing device with smartphone/tablet and health/activity tracking capabilities. Reportedly, iWatch includes a pedometer for counting steps and sensors for monitoring health-related data such as heart rate.

Apple is growing its team of medical sensor specialists by hiring some of the world's premiere experts in mobile medical technologies. Presumably, this expertise will be heavily leveraged by Apple in their development of the iWatch or some other device.    

Simultaneously, Google has been working on its much-heralded Google Glass, high-tech glasses which contain a heads-up display, camera and a microphone, and can ostensibly support mobile health apps directly on the device. Google Glass, developed by the company's secretive Google X lab, has strong potential for healthcare, particularly in the ER where physicians could use the glasses to scroll through lab and radiology results and in the OR providing surgeons with hands-free access to critical clinical information.

In addition, earlier this month, Google unveiled its contact lenses, which use a tiny sensor and wireless transmitter, to monitor and measure glucose levels in tears, potentially replacing the self-administered blood tests from finger pricks that diabetics must endure on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, Google employees recently met with U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials at FDA headquarters who regulate eye devices. 

Google's contact lenses will not be available to consumers until at least 2019. When it comes to Google Glass, due to regulatory hurdles and technical limitations, it could still be years before the glasses see wide use in healthcare, as Google Glass apps won't be commercially available until the end of 2014 or later.

How soon Apple's iWatch will be ready for primetime is anyone's guess. The end of 2013 had been rumored and now industry pundits are saying it will be this year.

Who will be first to market with these wearable devices--Apple or Google--remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the two technology leaders with track records for building strong brands will no doubt dazzle the marketplace with innovative, leading-edge products that put sensor-based devices in the hands of consumers and medical professionals. That kind of competition in mHealth can only serve to benefit us all as this nascent industry moves forward. - Greg (@Slabodkin)