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Apple’s Ambitious Plans for Health Tracking Rest on Its Smartwatch – Tech News Briefing

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Zoe Thomas : This is your Tech News Briefing for Friday, September 3rd. I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. How much do you know about your health at this very moment? What if you could check your blood pressure, your sleep patterns, your temperature, all by just looking down at your wrist. That’s the goal of Apple. The company’s working on a series of new features for its smartwatch to help users track all kinds of health metrics. On today’s show, Rolfe Winkler who covers health tech for The Wall Street Journal joins us with an exclusive look at Apple’s plans and how realistic they are. That’s after these headlines.
Facebook’s chat service, WhatsApp, was hit with a roughly $266 million fine for violating European Union data privacy rules. Regulators there found that WhatsApp didn’t meet the block’s requirements to tell EU users how their data was gathered and used, including how it was shared with other Facebook units. Regulators gave WhatsApp three months to bring its communications into compliance. A spokesman for WhatsApp said it would appeal the decision adding the company works to ensure the information it provides to users is transparent and comprehensive.
Alibaba says it’ll spend more than $15 billion to foster social equality as part of the Chinese government’s common prosperity campaign. A news outlet run by China’s Communist Party reported that the money will be used in part to support tech innovations, modernizing agriculture in less developed regions and bridging the digital divide between urban and rural areas. Other tech firms, including Tencent have also pledged billions in support of such projects. Beijing has been clamping down on tech companies that are seen as contributing to social divides and that includes video game makers. We talked about China’s tightening restrictions on gaming in yesterday’s show. So if you haven’t gotten a chance to listen, be sure to queue that up next.
And Apple says it will let media companies that sell digital content like music and news create in app links to direct users, to subscription signup pages on their websites. Sending users directly to sign up pages gives media companies a way to avoid paying Apple a cut of their subscription fees. Apple says it made the change to close an investigation by Japan’s Fair Trade Commission. And it’ll go into effect globally next year. Apple and rival, Google, have come under increasing scrutiny for the control they wield over what apps make it onto their smartphone operating systems and the fees they charge developers. Our reporter, Tim Higgins has more.

Tim Higgins : There’s concerns that they just hold too much sway over these smaller rivals. And that has led to a lot of debate about new regulations or laws that would limit some of that ability. For example, in South Korea, legislation has passed that would prohibit a company like Apple from requiring app developers to use its in app purchase a system, that would be a big blow in that market. But if it was to be something that happened increasingly other countries that would chip away at the company’s business.

Zoe Thomas : Apple said in app purchases through its app store, remain the safest method for making purchases. But that it would work with developers to protect users when they link to external websites. And speaking of Apple, coming up, can a smartwatch tell you everything about your health? Apple wants its watch to. We’ll discuss the plans after the break.
Most of us think of Apple as a device and software maker. It makes laptops, smartphones, smartwatches, and many of the apps that work on them. But if you asked the company’s chief executive, Tim Cook, what he thought Apple’s most important contribution is, he probably wouldn’t mention any of those. Here’s what he told CNBC in 2019.

Tim Cook: If you zoom out into the future and you look back and you ask the question, what was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind? It will be about health.

Zoe Thomas : That’s right: health. And to meet that lofty goal, the company is working on a host of new apps for its smartwatch. They can track everything from your sleep patterns, to your blood pressure, and one day, maybe even your blood sugar levels. Joining us with an exclusive look at what Apple is working on and the challenges it faces is our reporter, Rolfe Winkler. Hi Rolfe.

Rolfe Winkler : Hi Zoe, how are you doing?

Zoe Thomas : Apple has some ambitious plans for its watch. But before we get into that, let’s talk about why Apple is trying to expand its health offerings in the first place.

Rolfe Winkler : Because they can. Apple needs to sell devices. Every time they release a new device, they need to give you a reason to buy it. And so they need to put new stuff in it. With the iPhone, this has basically become a new and better camera every year. With the watch, there’s a few different things they can do. They can expand the size of the watch face and they can also put some new sensors into the watch and give you new health features. So for instance, last year’s feature to try to get you to upgrade to Series 6 was the pulse oximeter that measures blood oxygen. They want to give you new things all the time to get you to buy the next generation.

Zoe Thomas : So Rolfe, based on your reporting, what are some of the new features that Apple is working on for its smartwatch?

Rolfe Winkler : One thing they’re working on is a measure for your blood pressure. Another is a new sensor that will take your temperature from your wrist. They’re also thinking about upgrading existing features that track irregular heart rhythms, your blood oxygen level, they’re thinking about sleep apnea, and down the line, their white whale is can they measure blood glucose levels in a noninvasive way?

Zoe Thomas : All right. So maybe not all those features are coming to the Apple Watch soon. They sound pretty ambitious. How hard is it to collect this type of information on something that’s just attached to your wrist?

Rolfe Winkler : Very hard. That is one of the key challenges for Apple. The tagline for the watch is, “The future of health is on your wrist.” They really are spending a lot of time, energy, money, and marketing dollars investing in the idea that the watch is a health device. But there’s only so many things you can do from the wrist. A lot of Americans have hypertension. It’s a bad condition. Typically, you need a blood pressure cuff and to measure it frequently. What the watch can do is something, it’s kind of a proxy measure, variously called pulse arrival time or pulse wave velocity.
In a nutshell, it basically, it knows when your heart is firing and it looks at how quickly the pulse arrives at your wrist. And then it can kind of back into a measure of your blood pressure and how it’s trending without actually giving you the baseline figure. So this is a question internally at Apple, for instance. Some people there wonder how useful is a feature that’s going to tell you where your blood pressure is trending, but can’t give you a baseline measure that we’re all traditionally accustomed to seeing. That’s just one example of how the wrist is not an ideal location.

Zoe Thomas : Right. Another area that they’re really struggling and interested in getting into is measuring for diabetes. Why is that so hard for them?

Rolfe Winkler : Well pointing an optical sensor at your wrist can measure some things effectively, but it’s very hard to measure something like the level of glucose in your blood. The best measuring devices for that today are continuous glucose monitors, which you basically stapled to your abdomen or to your arm and they insert a thread like probe into your body. It doesn’t hurt, but you have to wear it for two weeks. Apple hasn’t yet cracked the technology that will enable them to get a good reading for your blood glucose levels in a noninvasive way. If they were ever able to crack that nut, hoo boy, that’s a complete game changer.

Zoe Thomas : But not every feature that they’re working on is so ambitious. I mean, one of the things that they’re looking to do is improve how they measure sleep patterns. Other apps already do this. What is Apple doing differently?

Rolfe Winkler : That’s a good question. We can’t know until they actually released the features that they’re thinking about. People who know Apple well will say, look, Apple is not always first. Apple tries to be best. They weren’t the first company with an MP3 player or a smartphone, but look at what the iPod was and look at what the iPhone became and how it changed what we know to be smartphones. We should add the caveat. In some cases, they’ll race stuff out that may not be ready. Their pulse oximeter, the blood oxygen reading that they put in last year’s watch wasn’t ready. It was widely panned by reviewers, including The Wall Street Journal, who said it sometimes, it just doesn’t give me a reading and the readings can vary a lot, not a great experience, but they wanted it out in time to sell last year’s version of the watch.

Zoe Thomas : One of the other features that stood out to me is that Apple wants to take your temperature. Why is that?

Rolfe Winkler : It’s another sensor that you can put in the watch. The Fitbit does it already. One thing that you can do with this potentially is fertility planning. There’s an app on the market called Natural Cycles, for instance, that got FDA clearance to help women track their ovulation cycle with the help of a thermometer, with their temperature as an additional piece of data feeding into the app, to give you a sense for when you might be most fertile. Apple wants to do something like that as well. This is anticipated for next year. Beyond that, maybe you could do things like detect fevers from your wrist. Now doctors will tell you that the temperature reading you get from an ear thermometer, from a thermometer under your tongue, from under your arm, from other places in the body, they all can have different levels of accuracy and mean different things. It’s not yet clear exactly how useful temperature will be from the wrist, but it’s a sensor that Apple can put into the device that it can use to sell more watches.

Zoe Thomas : I imagine having all of these health features might spark the attention of regulators. Is that something Apple is concerned about?

Rolfe Winkler : Yeah, it’s a fine line they really have to walk. On the one hand, they want to provide more of these health features to users, mostly for wellness, kind of use it your own risk purposes because they don’t want the watch to be regulated as a medical device. If that happens, well, all of a sudden the manufacturing process is subject to regulation. And Apple is not about to open up its supply chain in China to FDA regulators who could delay things.

Zoe Thomas : So all of these features are going to mean collecting a lot more data and people are becoming a lot more concerned about what happens with that. How is Apple going to persuade customers that it’s okay for it to collect and maybe store all of its information?

Rolfe Winkler : We’ll have to wait and see how each of these features plays out when they’re released. Apple talks a lot about on device processing with its devices. We’re not going to keep your data. It’s not going to the Cloud. It’s going to stay on your phone for instance. But as we just saw with their child pornography scanning, this message can get muddled and can scare some users. Wait, you’re scanning my phone for what and how. And I thought you were focused on privacy, but are you becoming Big Brother? These are all questions that customers end up asking. They don’t know and they are skeptical.

Zoe Thomas : All right. That’s our reporter, Rolfe Winkler. Thanks Rolfe.

Rolfe Winkler : Thank you Zoe.

Zoe Thomas : That’s it for Tech News Briefing this week. Our producer is Julie Chang. Our supervising producer is Chris Zinsli. Our executive producer is Kateri Jochum. And I’m your host, Zoe Thomas. Before we go, a quick programming note. We’ll be off next Monday for the Labor Day holiday, and we’ll be back in your feed on Tuesday. Thanks for listening and have a great weekend.

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