Nokia’s ownership of Withings has been incredibly messy. After buying Withings in mid-2016, Nokia sued Apple over unrelated patents which resulted in Withings digital health products being pulled from the Apple Store.
While that dispute has since been resolved, Nokia now says it is reviewing its digital health business altogether. The result could be positive or negative for Withings customers depending on where ownership lands.
As a Withings customer myself, my hope is that Apple buys the digital health product business from Nokia — if only to do the bare minimum to maintain hardware that works with Apple HealthKit.
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HealthKit is Apple’s framework on iOS for sharing health and fitness data with Apple’s Health app and compatible third-party apps. When used correctly, HealthKit enables apps to populate profiles for you with data like age, height, and weight based on data you enter in the Health app, and apps that measure health data can return those values back to the Health app.
Prior to being bought by Nokia, Withings made a line of smart scales that captures your weight and other measurements and then syncs the data to their mobile app. When I started my weight loss journey with Apple Watch, I manually entered my weight in Apple’s Health app regularly before upgrading my scale to a Withings smart scale that automatically adds the number using HealthKit.
Nokia has since rebranded the Withings line of digital health products to reflect the Nokia brand name, but the hardware is the same. There isn’t a huge selection of HealthKit compatible hardware products either, so Withings-turned-Nokia hardware has remained valuable for use with Apple’s Health app.
Not all players in the digital health space work with Apple HealthKit. Fitbit has notably taken a competitive position of not supporting Apple’s framework. Other services can integrate with Fitbit, but you need third-party tools to integrate Fitbit data with Apple’s Health app.
Withings hardware and software has taken a turn for the worst under Nokia. The Withings Health Mate app saw a major redesign under Nokia that was a step back in usability and reliability, the Body Cardio smart scale lost its headline feature for being too risky without regulatory approval, and promised HomeKit support for Withings Home camera that was demoed at CES 2016 will likely never ship.
They haven’t dropped HealthKit support (yet) however, but it’s totally possible they could under new leadership … like, say, Fitbit.
Withings-turned-Nokia isn’t the only maker of HealthKit-compatible hardware, but it is certainly a major contributor to the limited space:
The hardware is generally solid, too, but bouncing between owners understandably concerned with making a real business out of selling digital health solutions is not healthy for their HealthKit future.
I’m generally not one to push the ‘Apple should buy…” button, but in this case the proposition aligns with my interests and potentially Apple’s. If Nokia decides that it wants to shop its digital health business around to potential buyers, Apple being that customer and not Fitbit or another company would have benefits for iPhone customers.
Apple could certainly produce its own HealthKit blood pressure monitors and smart scales, but we know the company isn’t particularly great at multitasking and spreading itself wider, so taking ownership of an existing team rather than building its own could work.
Apple could rebrand the existing Nokia hardware as its own or fall back to the Withings branding and operate the division from a branding perspective like Apple does Beats audio today. Just don’t let Fitbit take ownership and strip out HealthKit features. It was a shame when Apple Stores pulled the hardware over Nokia’s patent disputes, and it would be a shame if the same thing happened again over Fitbit ownership.
Apple has a growing interest in digital health through evolving Apple Watch, acquiring the Beddit sleep tracker, and new health record initiatives coming in iOS 11.3. Buying the hardware would also give Apple ownership of solutions that Apple Watch does not cover: weight tracking, blood pressure tracking, and temperature tracking.
Nokia/Withings fitness trackers also exist, but those could easily be excluded from any deal.
Adding first-party HealthKit hardware to its expanding portfolio through an acquisition would not be the craziest thing in the world — and Apple doesn’t have a problem subsidizing healthcare innovations with its iPhone business. Just ask Tim Cook (per Tim Bradshaw):
“It’s clear that we can do more… You can see our ambition is broader [eg iPhone health records]. The more and more time we spend on this, the more and more excited I am that Apple can make a significant contribution to people’s lives in this area.”
How likely is a Nokia health division acquisition by Apple? Just ask Apple’s chief operating officer Jeff Williams (from Apple’s Nokia patent settlement announcement):
“We are pleased with this resolution of our dispute and we look forward to expanding our business relationship with Nokia,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.