Google Fit: Can it catch up with Apple HealthKit?

While Apple's HealthKit seems to have generated more interest in the healthcare industry, the popularity of Android could mean that the situation doesn't stay that way for long.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

Google Fit targets the fitness side of digital health, while Apple is also targeting medical applications.

Image: Google

Not long after Apple launched its health platform HealthKit on iOS in mid-2014, Google followed with its Android equivalent, Google Fit. But while Apple has been attracting hundreds of apps and some big name partners to its platform, Fit has been more of a low-key offering.

Fit followed HealthKit onto the market after Apple took the edge in giving consumers a single hub for connecting all their health and fitness kit.

"Google recognised it needed a place where device information can roll up. Android is quite a fragmented ecosystem on a good day, but what was happening was people were building proprietary rollups for data storage, so there wasn't a good place to go for a HealthKit-like experience for all your devices," Kate McCarthy, a senior analyst with Forrester, said.

So far, hardware companies including Withings (the French health tech company acquired by Nokia a few months back), Fossil, Sony, and Moto have made Fit-compatible devices, while a decent number of other third-party developers have also released apps using the platform.

Like Apple's HealthKit and Health app, Fit allows Android users to bring together health-tracking data from multiple devices either into third party apps or into Google's own health app, also called Fit. The idea is for consumers to be able to track health metrics, such as steps taken, weight loss, or hours of sleep, and set measureable fitness goals.

While the Fit app that allowed users to do that was initially quite basic, Google has improved the accuracy of the platform as a whole through a handful of updates as well as overhauling the functionality of the app to make it more useful.

Both Apple and Google have their a homegrown application for their health platforms -- Health and Fit respectively -- with broad feature parity, achieving massive takeup is unlikely to be the main priority for either company, according to Francisco Almeida, a research analyst in IDC's European mobile devices team.

"It's not really a race for the number of users using that app instead of another app on their platform, because in the end what they really want is to have huge data streams from all the apps and have consumers engaged. You use your own apps as a flagship app for the algorithms -- it's a showcase for the platform."

For now, Fit seems mainly to be targeting the fitness side of digital health -- the apps available on Google Play are mainly involve running or working out -- while Apple is also targeting medical applications.

Not only are healthcare providers in the US and UK using HealthKit apps as a way of getting an insight into their patients' conditions, Apple has also built CareKit, a platform that's for people to manage ongoing illness and medical problems, and has already signed several high-profile institutions to use it.

While Fit may not have had the same publicity in the healthcare vertical yet, that doesn't mean Google isn't gaining traction in the industry. "Google doesn't have the equivalent of CareKit or ResearchKit, but they're working on other fronts [including through its AI arm DeepMind], it's just not as public or doesn't involve the typical end user as much," IDC's Almeida said.

Indeed, while Google Fit may comparatively be a bit of a slow burner, it's easy to see a strong development path for the platform in future. Google has already shown its interest in courting the healthcare industry through Verily, its life sciences arm which is partnering with companies including GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, as well as DeepMind, whose artificial intelligence systems are being used in a number of experimental projects with the NHS.

After all, Google is already the first service that most people turn to when they're ill - entering their symptoms into the search box in the hope of getting a diagnosis to avoid either a lengthy wait for an appointment or a large bill for treatment.

With IBM Watson already using artificial intelligence to help doctors diagnose rare conditions or help select the most appropriate treatment for a particular patient, it's easy to see how Google could do similarly, turning Fit from consumer nice-to-have to a first-line tool for healthcare workers.

However, for now, Apple seems to be outpacing Mountain View in the segment -- it has more apps using HealthKit, has several hospitals signed on to use the system for patients, and has both the UK's main health records software companies offering integration with the platform.

There's likely to be a number of other reasons why Apple seems to be making more headway with medical professionals. According to Forrester's McCarthy, part of Apple's relative popularity is simply because healthcare professionals tend to use iOS themselves, so they're more comfortable working with the platform, but also because the two main providers of electronic medical records in the US, Cerner and Epic, have already provided iOS integration through HealthKit.

"Part of it is HealthKit has been around longer, so some of that upfront developer work has been done, so it's easy and seamless if you're an Apple user to connect into those environments. There's not a lot of risk [for healthcare professionals] in saying yes to that. I don't think it's that they're not interested in Google Fit, it's just that the connection isn't there automatically and it's more work," she said.

While that may mean health software and app companies initially build for HealthKit over Fit, that's likely to be a temporary situation, with healthcare companies -- as with companies in other industries -- they will tend to build for both Apple and Android when equivalent platforms are available.

It's an idea reflected by the stance of Withings, which builds for both Fit and HealthKit. "We don't have a religion on [platforms]... The data that you generate when you wear a sensor or step on a set of scales, it's your own data as a user. We need to provide ways to leverage that data and process it in the right interface for our users -- we've been very proactive in plugging into different platforms for that reason. It has to be accessible where it makes sense for you," Cédric Hutchings, Nokia's VP of digital health and CEO of Withings, said.

And it's likely that, for that reason, we'll be seeing more from Google Fit in the future: Google has more apps in its app store than Apple, roughly the same number of apps downloaded as Apple, and Android continues to account for the lion's share of smartphone sales.

It's also got a much broader geographical reach than iOS, being popular in developing economies where Apple sales are relatively low. In such economies, where rural or extremely low-income users are numerous and comprehensive health coverage is rare, platforms like Google Fit could ultimately provide a way of giving those users access to basic health services.

Read more about Apple HealthKit and Google Fit

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