It’s been an interesting week for the short range wireless standards. The two terrible teenagers, ANT and ZigBee have both shown signs of their growing maturity, starting to position themselves as far more serious contenders in the market place. In the wake of their move from adolescence, a new toddler has emerged in the form of Toumaz, with their announcement of their Telran chip.
What has been missing is any reaction, or in fact much sign of any action from their elder siblings – Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. As large manufacturers continue to tighten their belts, one of the less noticed effects has been a steady withdrawal of engineering support from standards organisations. In the past, many of these have been staffed with seconded experts from the big names in industry. Increasingly those big names are withdrawing, relying largely on chip vendors to push their interests within the standards organisations. That’s left Wi-Fi and Bluetooth battling to persuade industry members that either standard has a development future, with certain of their members considering that the job has been done.
Which opens up the field for the former competitors to claim some potentially interesting parts of the market.
If you’ve been reading the mHealth blogs and analyst reports over Christmas and the New Year, you’ll have realised that medical apps are being promoted as being the next big thing. You’d be forgiven by thinking that by 2015 we’ll have given up on conventional medicine and the only reason we’ll be going to see our GP is because GPs will replace the Apps Store as the primary source of these apps. So, if you’ve any money left after Christmas the message seems to be to go and invest it in health apps development, as that’s where the cash will be.
Although it feels a little early in the year to be contrarian, I think that the industry is running before it can walk. Do we really think doctors are ready to be start practising the mantra of “first I’ll dispense an iPhone app; if that doesn’t work I’ll give them an Android one; and if they’re still not better I’ll put them on the Symbian app – if that doesn’t cure them, nothing will. They won’t come back after that!”.
I’m not knocking innovation in health apps. As I’ve said before the industry probably needs to think more out of the box than it currently is, but there are already lots around and there will be more to come. Whether they will transform our health is another matter, as is whether anyone will make money out of them. A lot of the current thinking seems to be making unsupportable jumps and simply inflating the mHealth bubble. Let’s look at whether it makes sense…
Many reasons are put forward for that, ranging from the natural inertia of the medical industry, the barriers imposed by regulators, through to the difficulty in persuading doctors to hand over disease management to their patients.
Technology has been blamed in the past, but that’s no longer a valid reason. Over recent years there have been major advances in sensors, wireless connectivity and processing power. We certainly don’t have solutions to every problem, but there is a wide range of conditions where mHealth could provide significant benefits. So what’s holding it back?
Next week the Mobile Health Industry Review at the King’s Fund in London will be bringing experts and VCs together to talk about business models. I’ll be suggesting that mHealth isn’t the first industry to have suffered from this phenomenon. Even for disruptive technologies, it often needs an unexpected and sometimes even unconnected industry to invent and develop a new application in order to drive things to a point where the disruption can be taken up and embraced by others. One of the classic cases is the Internet. Much of the development of streaming, payment mechanisms and user interface was driven by the porn industry. Once that work was done, it was adopted by others, giving us the e-commerce, video streaming and compelling content that we now expect from every site.
So, if Mobile Health is going to get anywhere it probably needs to follow the same course and forget about conventional medical thinking, (which generally involves a doctor), and embrace some more disruptive models. To put it more bluntly, we need to find out what the equivalent of pornography is for healthcare.
Medica claims to be the world’s largest medical show. It’s a very monochrome event – all of the equipment is white and shiny, and most of the exhibitors and visitors are soberly dressed in dark suits, as befits the serious profession of medicine and spending money in Dusseldorf. Looking at the equipment on display and the crowds thronging the show, you certainly wouldn’t get any impression that there’s a recession around, other than slightly more suits than normal and rather fewer bow-ties around the necks of the visiting consultants.
As far as the medical industry is concerned, it’s business as usual, and hopefully more so, as more of us get older and less healthy. But there are some interesting trends. One of which is the increased prevalence of wireless connectivity. In previous years equipment manufacturers were happy for nurses to jot down the readings from their instruments. A few devices had wireless links, but they were the exception. This year, particularly at the consumer end of the market, wireless was becoming the norm, at least at the top end of product ranges.
Almost all of that was Bluetooth. I stopped counting after the first hundred devices, and that was in just two of the twenty halls. ANT was in evidence, helped with a demonstration of a prototype X10 Nano phone from Sony Ericsson, which was using the ANT protocol to connect to a weighing scale, heart rate belt and pedometer. Wi-Fi was there in a few products, but mostly confined to tags for asset management, and I failed to find a single ZigBee medical device. There also seemed to be very little profile for the Continua Alliance in terms of products or signage. Even The Intel stand was conspicuously Continua-free.
Electronica only comes every other year but it’s still the biggest electronics trade show in the world. The last time it ran, Bluetooth low energy was still better known as Wibree. In the intervening two years half a dozen companies have announced chips and the standard has been completed and published. So visitors to Munich last week had the first major opportunity for to see just how much progress has been made.
It’s obvious that the industry has moved from PowerPoint presentations to reality. Chips were on display, along with development boards and the first few modules. In the Forum within Electronica there were sessions on the applications it will enable, and in the adjoining Wireless Congress a full day’s track was devoted to developer training and further applications.
The silicon and tools are definitely here. Now it’s time for developers to add their imagination.
If you follow the mHealth blogs and groups on LinkedIn you’ll see a constant debate about where mHealth is in out existing health services. I’ve been looking at some of the applications which are already in use within the NHS. As yet, there’s no central policy for mHealth, and it’s debatable whether much of the good practice using mHealth is even acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean it’s not providing benefit.
Much of mHealth is invisible. It’s not the high tech monitoring that we find in glossy medical device brochures, but far simpler, everyday applications. Many of these use SMS, but mHealth extends through voice and video, and we’re already seeing local use of applications on iPhones and Android. However, there is little coordination of deployment, and almost all that is happening is as a result of local initiatives.