• Healthbook could enable Apple to scan your heartbeat
  • Apple heartbeat scanning could be used alongside Touch ID
  • Is Apple looking to create biometric ID system for mobile payments?

Apple is getting ready to move into the health industry. If reports and rumours are correct, then at this year’s WWDC we will see the introduction of a new app called Healthbook.

Healthbook is an interesting app (and possibly SDK for third party developers) that appears to collate information about a an iPhone owners health status. This could be used by the health conscious, or to provide information for health professionals.

On the surface this is perfect for wearables. Healthbook will offer the usual fitness features that a product like Nike+ offers. You will enter metrics for your weight, food intake, and it will monitor your movement activity and sleep habits. Hopefully Apple will open up the system so developers can get busy making the real world objects that connect to apps.

So far, so interesting (and it is), and we’re sure that this sports and fitness technology will tie up well with new wearables such as the oft-mooted iWatch. But we think there’s more to Apple’s interest in health than meets the eye. Here’s how we think it could pan out…

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Step 1: Healthbook introduces biometrics to the iPhone

Healthbook heart monitor

There’s a second, more interesting aspect, to Healthbook. It’s been rumoured that the technology will also monitor a user’s heartbeat and somehow analyse blood work.

Exactly how, Apple, intends to monitor blood work is up for interpretation at the moment, so let’s look at how Apple will monitor heartbeats.

Apple has a patent on using Apple Headphones to monitor the heartbeat alongside the iWatch. Both of which could be used to monitor a user's heart pattern.

All of this is expected to make use of Apple’s new M7 motion co-processor, but we also expect the information to pass through Apple’s A7 Secure Enclave; this is the part of the A7 processor that your Touch ID fingerprint passes through, the part that ensures your personal information is locked up in a private part of the chip.

Step 2: Heart ID - your heartbeat unlocks the iPhone and iWatch

Heart ID earphones

The presence of the Secure Enclave prior to the launch of a health product ecosystem is particularly interesting, because one aspect of your heartbeat is that it can be used alongside Touch ID to identify you. This could enable Apple to introduce a feature, which we’ll call tentatively Heart ID.

Research in 2013 by Rice University and the security company RSA (outlined here by MIT’s Technology Review) found that a person’s heartbeat can become as a biometric identifier. If Apple were to introduce this sort of system it could ensure that the iPhone is unlocked, and usable, when your earphones are in, and locked when you take them out. This will be very handy to those of us who like to run with our iPhone.

Some companies, like Nymi, have been putting together wrist straps that act as personal identifiers. But as with many technologies, this only becomes truly useful when placed inside a consumer product like the iPhone, where suddenly – like Touch ID – it sits alongside tools like Healthbook and the App Store.

Obviously if you’re going to start collecting personal information about people, you’ll need to do it securely; this is where Apple’s A7 chip and its secure enclave step it. Google may like to harvest personal information about people; Apple prefers to keep its data on people under lock and key.

Step 3: Apple matches biometric data to customer card information

Apple's credit card graph

“I promise to pay the bearer on demand” only works if the “I” bit is secure. The more bio-identification systems Apple has in place, the more secure it can be to make payments and the faster it is for you to make payments (no more registration, pin numbers or passwords). The lack of secure identification in the digital world is the biggest hurdle to creating an alternative to current payments.

Money has been steadily going digital for a long time now. It’s often cited that only 8 per cent of money is real (as in physical cash - although the reality is a bit more complex). But even that 8 per cent is slowly becoming more and more virtual. We’re all using less physical cash and moving towards cards these days.

The number of transactions using cash is expected to decline from 21bn in 2012 to 14bn in 2022, according to the Payments Council (the body responsible for making sure that payment services work in the UK).

The Payments Council expects mobile payments to increase with the introduction of account-to-account transfers using only a phone number and the use of mobile device apps to replace card usage. Early systems such as PayM  have just become available in the UK, but the low profile and system of registration between both parties is likely to keep it out of general usage for the time being.

So let’s ask the question: what company has at least 800 million active accounts linked to credit cards? And possibly over a billion? No, not Amazon, it has only 400 million. This tweet says it all.

Tim Cook said in January that “it was one of the thoughts behind Touch ID” and “a big opportunity” for the company. So Apple is moving into this area. Apple wants to make online store payments possible directly from your iPhone; beyond that private payments between individuals and eventually in-store and real-world payments. Real world payments will mark the point where technology like NFC finally becomes useful: when the iPhone becomes your wallet.

It’s easy to join the dots up between health and commerce, making it happen is – of course – another matter, and it’s up to Apple if it chooses to go down that path. If Apple wants to replace the credit and debit card as the payment system of choice it needs to be sure that the right person is holding the Apple device, and for that it requires identification. There’s no better identification than your own heartbeat and fingerprints.