Communism, Thrones, and Health: Apple "Spring Forward" Event (Part 1)

SHARE Communism, Thrones, and Health: Apple "Spring Forward" Event (Part 1)

Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about the new Apple Watch during an Apple event on Monday, March 9, 2015, in San Francisco. | Eric Risberg / AP

It’s possible that the Apple Watch was only Apple’s third-most interesting announcement from Monday’s “Spring Forward” event. And it’s not as though the watch was a Fig Newton-sized slab of dullness, either. Apple finally presented a complete picture of what their smartwatch will do for its owner and subsequently the planet. All of the new information was good, apart from the one piece of information that everyone knew was going to bite down hard.

But we’d seen the Apple Watch before. And smartwatches still have a gadget-ey aura around them. If you haven’t been wearing one for a long time, as I have, it’s hard to look at a device like Apple Watch and immediately understand why having one could be a good idea. It’s not as instinctive as, say, a new MacBook that’s so light and thin that we must discard the ” . . . as a pancake” simile and look to the descriptive possibilities of other breakfast items, such as a crepes. Nor can Apple Watch seem as important as software designed to extend and preserve human life.

(No matter how finely-crafted those stainless steel link bracelets may be.)

I’ll roll through Apple’s announcements from start to finish. Feel free to watch along with me, if you’ve got an hour and a half to kill.


China, China, China!

Our story begins in cheery Hangzhou City, there in the Zhejiang province in eastern China, honored by the Chinese “Fortune” magazine as 2014’s “most congenial retirement city.”

Apple has honored them with a new landmark store. It’s a familiar video of a new Apple Store opening: dozens of employees clad in matching Apple logo shirts, lined up and clapping as jubilant men and women of all ages gather in huge crowds and throng in, smiling and cheering and clamoring for exotic and stylish California-designed consumer electronics goods.

Well, so much for communism. I think everyone can agree that this way is a lot more fun. I tried to text Karl Marx for a comment, but I was told through his office that his brick-style mobile phone only works with analog networks and can’t receive or sent texts or emails. But kudos to Karl for sticking to his principles.

I’ve seen so many of these Apple media events open with a video look at a new Chinese store, or failing that, at another huge Apple store in an international city. I’m eager to see some random mall Apple store opening in Kentucky (or its overseas equivalent) get a similar spotlight.

HBO . . . oh?

Oh, how excited I was when Tim Cook led straight into news about AppleTV! This streaming box hasn’t been getting much visible love from anybody recently . . . including Apple.

It’s long overdue for an update. Its UI seems clunky and out of date; launching channels and streams is slow enough to provide the viewer with ample time for quiet, mindful contemplation before the entertainment begins; and its features aren’t even keeping up with what a modern midrange TV can do out-of-the-box. It’s been trumped pretty hard by the Roku 3 and FireTV, and thus I have a hard time recommending it for anything other than its AirPlay feature.

It’s been selling all right, as far as anybody can tell — a success for any company but Apple, you might say — but Apple doesn’t let a product like this far so far behind the rest of the pack unless they have huge plans in play and they’re waiting for the right time to move. Such was the case with the Mac Pro, you’ll recall.

Alas, all Apple did today was cut the price of the Apple TV down from $99 to $69. Which is welcome, but in Apple terms this is the “I’m not angry with you . . . I guess I’m just disappointed” talk that a parent has with a similarly-underperforming child.

The real news was the debut of HBO as a standalone service. Starting in early April — and exclusively on Apple devices until the summer — fifteen bucks a month buys you full access to the HBO Now streaming service. As far as I can tell, it includes the same content that a conventional HBO subscriber gets to stream via the HBO Go app: every movie to which HBO currently has rights, plus all of their current TV shows and specials, and even years and years of past HBO-produced content, including “The Sopranos” and “Sex And The City.”

Remember when “cable cutting” was the big buzzed-about concept, before we started getting distracted by the exciting news that the Internet was about to get Thinged and forgot all about it? This move is part of that.

Purchasing HBO’s streaming library as an a-la-carte service might seem like a silly idea. You sure aren’t going to access HBO Now via a dialup connection. So if you already have home broadband service, why not pay about the same money for traditional HBO, and get HBO Go for free?

Well, if you ask this question then you’re not the consumer that HBO is trying to hook. I’m part of the final “broadcast TV’ generation. I grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and New Year’s Eve Stooge-A-Thons. I keep missing “The Amazing Race” because it’s moved to Friday nights.

All true . . . and yet, even I’ve stopped thinking of TV in its classic terms. I think of TV as something I access through my Roku, via subscription services. “Cord-cutting” is a misnomer. It’s not a rejection of an old business model (“And now, as I slice through this rope with oversized ceremonial shears, I symbolically terminate my one-sided relationship with established hegemony!”). People aren’t subscribing to cable because they aren’t particularly aware that over-the-air broadcasts and 400-channel cable packages even exist.

This deal makes HBO Now available to anybody with an iTunes account. Students, for example, can carry an HBO subscription with them as they shuttle from dorms to summer apartments to visits with the parents. Maybe this will cut down on the “Game Of Thrones” piracy.

Naw . . . stealers gotta steal. This is a ripe spot for a witty “Game Of Thrones” rejoinder but I’ve only seen about three episodes so I can’t compare them to the right character. So I’ll just drop a “They’re soooo Samantha!” here and then shuffle away.

HBO Now will be available starting in “early April,” in time for the April 12 GoT season premiere. The first 30 days are a free trial.


Big Numbers

Then came a snippet about the iPhone, and the traditional Fun With Charts And Graphs segment of an Apple event. “Recently we sold out 700,000,000th iPhone,” Tim announced, before talking about quarterly growth numbers.

“Geez, Samsung’s launch event at Mobile World Congress didn’t waste any time talking about financial stuff,” I thought. Then I thought about the sort of numbers Samsung posted in 2014 and then I thought “Oh, right.”

There were no announcement about the iPhone, apart from its market success. Not that I was expecting any (though I was hoping for an official launch of Apple’s new unified photo platform for both iOS and MacOS).

After Monday’s event had concluded, I went thought my notes and realized that the only major Apple product that didn’t even get a mention during the event was the iPad.

“Geez, that seems strange,” I thought. Then I thought about the sort of numbers that the iPad had posted in 2014 and then I thought “Oh, right.”

The Most Important Apple Products Aren’t Available In Rose Gold

I mentioned that Monday’s events included two announcements that felt more significant than Apple’s watch news. Here’s the first one.

After some quick comments about Apple’s HomeKit and CarPlay APIs — both are keen ideas that smarten up Homes and Cars with iOS and MacOS devices and seem quite promising, both are largely irrelevant today as third parties slowly to spin up their support — Tim launched a nearly fifteen-minute segment (practically an eternity in Apple media event terms) to talk about Apple’s work with the medical community.

When most people think about technology designed to improve health, they think “fitness band.” That’s a limited type of thinking that doesn’t stray from what you can find blister-packed at Best Buy. A device that encourages you to exercise more efficiently (or at all) will improve a user’s health, sure. But it’s weak sauce compared to what technology could be doing.

I was once the fulltime caregiver of a terminally-ill parent. For 18 hours a day and seven days a week, my committed focus was on my mother’s health, safety, and happiness. I soon discovered that my most powerful weapons in that campaign were continuous close observation of minute day-to-day details combined with careful record-keeping. I kept notes on what constituted “normal” activity across a couple of dozen categories. Any spikes or deviations from normal were easy to spot. I was able to disrupt serious health issues long before they developed into full-blown emergencies by making minute adjustments early in the process, by performing some linear problem-solving and making minute adjustments.

Mind you, there were a handful of minor crises while I cared for her. But with each incident, I only needed to work through step three or four of what I plotted out as a ten-step response plan before the crisis ended. She never required hospitalization or emergency treatment while under my care and she was able to remain in her own home until she needed to transition to hospice treatment.

This was an eye-opening experience in so many ways. Things could have gone so much worse for my mother. And they do go badly for people who don’t have the fortune of a family member or a fulltime healthcare provider who’s constantly observing and taking notes. What could have been a year of living in the familiar comfort of home turns into an early move into residential care.

But really, anybody living an unsupervised existence is at risk. As we go through our daily routines, we’re constantly shedding piles of information that’s diagnostically useful after enough quantity has been amassed. We’re all “healthy” until a doctor tells us we’re not healthy, and the outcome of that meeting can be much better if it takes place long before the most serious symptoms present themselves.

This is why I say “God (or whatever) bless Apple” for HealthKit.

I say that without an ounce of reservation or shame.

HealthKit, a set of healthcare-related iOS APIs that Apple has created and made available to developers, can turn an iPhone into that same kind of hour-to-hour, day-to-day, highly-observant healthcare worker who keeps scrupulous records, notices deviations from the norm, can cross-check information between apps, and surface that information in a way that the user and their healthcare providers will find relevant.

How many hours did the person sleep last night? How have they been sleeping this week in general? Have they been leaving the house? How often did they enter the bathroom and how much time did they spend in there?

When they walk, is it a steady gait, or kind of wobbly? Has this person ever fallen? Did they get up right away?

These are all simple things that can be gleaned just from an iPhone’s built-in sensors. HealthKit apps can integrate other sensors that are peculiar to a specific individual’s medical needs, such as scales, glucose meters, pulse scanners, blood pressure readers, oxygen saturation meters…a constellation of consumer-grade and prescription-only apparatus that can add an additional lens to an increasingly sharp and helpful picture.

HealthKit and the iOS Health app made their debuts on iOS lat year. Apple spoke briefly about these resources before unveiling a new and equally ambitious component. ResearchKit is a new set of APIs that medical researchers can use to build apps that collect sample data from research volunteers and transmits it from their homes to the managers of the study. As with HealthKit, ResearchKit apps are designed to be easy, safe, and secure.


Apple’s been building ResearchKit for a year with the assistance of a dozen research institutes, including Dana-Farber, Stanford, Mass. General Hospital, Mt. Sinai, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. They showed off five different iPhone apps built with the new framework. A volunteer in a Parkinson’s disease study, for example, can use an app called “mPower” (developed by Sage Bionetworks and the University of Rochester) to collect and transmit study data about their speech, walking gait, memory, and fine motor skills. While the study is underway, the volunteer participant can view their own historical study data on their iPhone, and start to glean insights into how their body is behaving.

All study results are collected and transmitted securely. Jeff Williams (Apple senior VP of operations) carefully pointed out that not even Apple can see the data that these volunteers are collecting and submitting, and the participant has full control over their own privacy.

If the purpose of HealthKit is to contributes to the health of an individual, then the purpose of ResearchKit is to improve the health of a whole community. Without ResearchKit apps, the sample size of a study is limited to “the number of people who can regularly travel to the research institute or an affiliated facility,” With ResearchKit, that sample expands to “any relevant individual who has a phone.”

And Apple does mean “anybody.” ResearchKit is open-source; Apple confirmed to me that indeed, anybody is free to write ResearchKit-enabled apps for any device running any operating system.

My mom had many people looking out for her but only one set of fulltime eyes before she transitioned to hospice care. If I ever find myself in a similar healthcare situation, I could have thousands of people looking out for me…all thanks to the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices, and the simple fact that talented and imaginative engineers decided that tools like HealthKit and ResearchKit were worth building.

I know that I can often be silly in my enthusiasm for technology. I’m sincere about a new piece of hardware that captures my interest and affection, and I even make the case that a new whatsit or a better contraption can improve our lives. At the same time, I’m well-aware that whatever this is, it’s just a consumer item.

HealthKit and ResearchKit are different. These frameworks are in their infancies but in the long run they have the potential to actually save lives and ease suffering.

Save lives. Ease suffering. This is technology performing at an ideal state.

This is why I insist, beyond any argument, that they’re the most important products Apple has ever made or ever will make. If I could bless one and only one Apple initiative with success, I’d know what to pick. I wish that my Dad (a retired engineer) had lived long enough to see the first iPad. But what I really wish is that he’d lived longer.

I know that HealthKit-enabled apps and hardware could have made that happen. I won’t elaborate. But I’m quite certain.

Way too many of the news articles surrounding Apple’s financial success this year have been, to put it bluntly, crass and embarrassing. It seemed as though analysts and commentators were in a race to top each other with increasingly florid and pornographic descriptions of just how much money three quarters of a trillion dollars actually is.

Who cares? I’m only interested in a golden calf if it’s made out of solid chocolate, wrapped in foil, and presented to me on Easter Morning. Even then, I’m more likely to break it apart and eat it than kneel and pray to it. There isn’t much dignity in that reaction to financial results.

But HealthKit and ResearchKit are the real deals. They make me very happy and very, very excited. 99.99% of that reaction is due to frameworks’ important and ambitious shared mission, of course. The rest if from the evidence that an organization can become the most valuable company in the history of the United States without losing its institutional soul.

Apple has the resources to make anything it wants. The fact that some of those things they want to make are HealthKit and ResearchKit puts a big, dopey smile on my face and validates the affection and respect I’ve had for this company since I was hastily wafting the smell of a fried Apple //e motherboard out of a classroom and thinking up a plausible alibi to tell the teacher when she came back in to see how I was doing on that extra-credit project.

That feels like a good spot in which to end Part 1 of my commentary on Monday’s Apple event. Tune in later for my writeups of the new MacBook and the rest of Apple’s story regarding Apple Watch.

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