Apple Cauterizing HealthKit At Launch Shows How High The Stakes Are 

Last week, in the fevered cauldron of iPhone 6/6+ reviews, iOS 8 rolling out and shiny new iPhone hardware going on sale it was easy to miss the glitch in Apple’s oh-so-choreographed release matrix: a bug in its new HealthKit develop tool.

Apple introduced HealthKit to developers at its WWDC event in June, along with a Health app which acts as a repository for viewing all the health and fitness data collated via HealthKit.

The idea behind HealthKit is to make it easier for health and fitness data to flow between apps, with fine-grained user permissions built in, allowing the user to control and build up a more holistic — and therefore useful — overview of their personal wellness, using whatever combination of health and fitness iOS apps and devices they choose.

But such was the serious nature of the last minute HealthKit bug that Apple locked the tool down entirely — so it’s effectively not in the current version of iOS 8. Cupertino also pulled apps with HealthKit integration off the App Store. This caused considerable headaches for developers who had lined up HealthKit integration to be there from the start of iOS 8.

Any health and fitness apps with HealthKit integration that were live on the store prior to the release of iOS 8 were pulled down by Apple, with minimal notice. Apps that use HealthKit and are still waiting approval won’t be approved until after the next iOS 8 update at the earliest (unless they temporarily remove HealthKit integration).

In just one example last week, Big Health, a startup which delivers cognitive behavioral therapy via digital channels, launched its first app (Sleepio, for sleep disorder sufferers). And promptly found itself having to scramble to compile a version that would be allowed back on the store, after Apple yanked the app prior to iOS 8 launching. Evidently Cupertino didn’t want lots of broken health and fitness apps ruining its shiny new OS party.

“What we did at speed was we tore out HealthKit. We created a version of the app without HealthKit, which for us is ok — because the core still works, ‘Help Me Now’ still works, all the core functionality of Sleepio still works — it just limits where you can get the data from,” CEO and co-founder Peter Hames tells TechCrunch.

“In time we think HealthKit’s going to be a really rich source of data for us. But the first integration is just pulling in sleep data so you can either input that manually or get Jawbone UP and pull it in from Jawbone. So we were able to quickly resubmit a version that didn’t have HealthKit.”

As Hames notes, Sleepio is now back on the App Store — but sans HealthKit integration. The same thing happened to the MyFitness Pal app. Other examples in the health and fitness space aren’t hard to find.

Apple disabling a flagship feature in the new version of its mobile OS just prior to launch is a notable occurrence: the aforementioned glitch in an otherwise slickly orchestrated launch.

The company — which is famously reticent when not speaking from its own podium — issued a statement about the HealthKit bug earlier this week, when asked for comment by the FT‘s Tim Bradshaw. “We discovered a bug that prevents us from making HealthKit apps available on iOS 8 today. We’re working quickly to have the bug fixed in a software update and have HealthKit apps available by the end of the month,” Apple said on Wednesday.

It provided the same statement to TechCrunch when asked about the issue, and declined to answer any specific questions — including on the nature of the bug itself.

One thing is crystal clear here: Apple’s health play — with HealthKit — raises the stakes considerably when it comes to sensitive user data. Leaks of explicit photos held on Apple’s servers are bad enough, but personal medical data is arguably even more sensitive than intimate photographs. So Apple’s bid to become a central hub for individuals’ medical data means it’s going to need to put security before convenience at every turn. 

Leak medical data once and risk losing user trust forever.

The level of detail in Apple’s Health system is extensive for a consumer product, with sixty different types of data recognized — from blood glucose, to oxygen saturation, to dietary cholesterol, to respiration rate. It certainly does not have a tokenistic feel.

Apple has also sought out and partnered with big name healthcare providers and health data repositories, starting with The Mayo Clinic and Epic Systems. Discussing this at WWDC, Apple said the aim is to let patients choose to share records and data with their health providers. It’s not hard to see the vision here: iOS apps and compatible devices acting as health data-gatherers, iOS’s HealthKit as the conduit, and Apple as the data sharing platform provider.

It’s a big, potentially revolutionary gambit on Apple’s part to consumerize, and therefore own, healthcare data flows — casting itself in that central platform role; the hub from which myriad spokes extend, linking devices, people, patients and healthcare providers. Apple is gunning to be the mobile company that puts people in charge of their own health data, to arm them with standardized means to appraise their personal wellness.

But medical data is not just any data. It carries a special responsibility — and, indeed, such data can carry specific regulatory and compliance responsibilities, as my colleague Darrell Etherington noted back in August.

All of which means the stakes — for HealthKit — are very high indeed. And ensuring a bug-free product right from launch is hugely, hugely important for Apple. This is not some ‘nice to have’ consumer flourish. Apple is shooting for iOS to become a health data standard. This pipeline really does just have to work.

So the cauterized launch is notable in two ways: firstly that a flagship iOS 8 feature didn’t launch as intended. But more importantly that Apple made the decision to hold it back — creating an unsightly blip in its launch festival and torching devs’ efforts (however temporarily) in the process.

“I still believe the same thing about HealthKit,” says Hames, who remains positive about the transformative potential of Apple’s health data play. “I still believe in the potential of it — that it’s going to be the thing that has the power to catalyze digital medicine becoming a reality. [This bug] highlights the stakes involved — although obviously we don’t know what the bug is.”

“I really think that they have a long view on the impact that this is going to have,” he adds. “To make sure that they’re building something that’s going to have a meaningful impact.

“When it comes to healthcare, trust is so easily lost.”