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Google Takes Baby Steps Back to Health

The platform allows developers to take advantage of more data -- but reactions are mixed.

Vjeran Pavic, Re/code

As expected, Google unveiled Google Fit at its developer conference on Wednesday morning, a new platform that allows mobile software developers to take advantage of health data from multiple sensors, devices and apps.

But the Mountain View, Calif., company seems to be starting small in the space, tucking the news in a quick introduction toward the end of the morning keynotes at Google I/O in San Francisco. Unlike other announcements, it didn’t make Google’s I/O blog post.

As the name suggests, Google is focusing on basic fitness metrics, including steps, sleep, weight and calories. But there do not appear to be ways to gather information from more specialized wearables for respiration, body posture or push-ups — or medical-grade devices that can measure blood pressure or glucose levels.

For now, the company, whose earlier entry into the health platform space shut down in 2012, has adopted more of a facilitator role. It’s enabling third-party developers greater access to information from various sources and inviting them to devise the best uses.

The initiative doesn’t seem nearly as far-reaching as what Apple unveiled earlier this month with HealthKit. That announcement included Apple’s own Health app, a central hub for information pulled from wearables, medical devices and its own phones. The Cupertino, Calif., company also partnered with the Mayo Clinic and Epic Systems, a major provider of electronic medical records, suggesting the data could be shared in the clinical setting.

Still, Google Play Product Manager Ellie Powers highlighted various promises of Fit on stage. “Fit takes away the complexity of handling multiple sources, giving you a unified view of a user’s fitness activity,” she said. “This helps you build more comprehensive apps.”

Powers added that both Adidas and Nike will integrate with the service, opening up their sensors and data to outside developers.

In another example of how the additional data could be implemented, she showed off a new version of the Noom Weight Loss Coach app that combined workouts, nutritional information and weight as pulled from a third-party digital scale.

“It can let me know when my daily cookie habit gets just that little bit overboard,” Powers said.

She stressed that users will have total control over which apps can share and use information.

On Monday, Re/code published a fuller explanation of why Google, Apple, Samsung and other companies are racing to build hubs for digital health, noting:

No one is quite sure how it will play out — but they all know for sure that they don’t want to miss out. Health offers the next opening to differentiate operating systems, the next opportunity to tie consumers into ecosystems and the next source of information that can be tapped for consumer insights.

But that will only happen on the margins until businesses convince mainstream consumers that fitness devices, apps and services should matter to them. And at this point, with today’s offerings, it’s far from clear the public is sold.

Google’s at work on that problem as well, announcing features for its Android Wear software development kit and the availability of several new smartwatches earlier in the morning.

Developers are having mixed reactions to these platform plays. On one hand, the efforts by tech giants like Google and Apple shine a brighter light on the space, which increases consumer awareness. But there’s also a risk of losing direct contact with customers, to the degree that they end up accessing one company’s data through a different firm’s apps.

There’s the additional fear these services could commoditize the value of this data, making it seem like steps are steps are steps. In fact, the devices and software vary widely in terms of accuracy, means of drawing insights and methods for providing fitness guidance.

“What’s helped MyFitnessPal succeed has been our ability to contextualize the health data we collect and return actionable information to users — in fact, our members have used our apps to lose over 150 million pounds,” said Albert Lee, co-founder of MyFitnessPal, in an emailed statement. “That’s what Google Fit and Apple HealthKit will need to deliver in order to ensure mobile adoption of their platforms: Applications that deliver on critical consumer use cases.”

Google said the developer tools will be available within the next few weeks.

Update: This story has been updated to include additional industry context and reaction from developers.

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