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Is this the Apple of the Physician's Eye?

January 26, 2010
by Joe Marion
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If you are an Apple computer fan, the hype has reached a frenzy around the anticipated launch of the iTablet on January 27th. Rumors suggest it will be another killer product from Apple and that it will serve all kinds of roles such as a “Kindle killer” to a laptop replacement. If it’s as good as the hype says it is, could it also be the key to legitimizing electronic health records?

Think of all the applications that exist for the iPhone, including medical applications. It seems the biggest limitation is the size of the iPhone device. If all the speculation is correct, the iTablet might just be the right form factor to accelerate medical applications – particularly if it can do everything an iPhone can do, and more!

Could the iTablet be the device that finally makes electronic health records a reality? Think of how it could act as the data input device of choice. Besides Wi-Fi connectivity, the iPhone as a phone also supports 3G wireless connectivity. The iTablet is rumored to also be able to support 3G. If so, the possibilities are endless. The small office practice that doesn’t have, or doesn’t want to support a WI-FI setup could simply use it via 3G for data entry practically anywhere. And, with all the applications available, there are most likely medical journals and reference materials available as well – all for just $1.99.

OK. Lest you think “I’m an Apple” (pun on Microsoft’s latest advertising for Windows 7 – I’m a PC), let’s look at the flip side of the equation. Granted, via Wi-Fi, this could be a slick data entry device, but unless AT&T quadruples overnight, I doubt the current support infrastructure could handle such an increased load. You know, there’s a map for that (as the Verizon dig goes). And that brings me to what I see as the biggest issue with the notion of wireless connectivity for such a device – carrier limitation. As long as Apple continues to be tied to the coattails of AT&T, I don’t see the opportunity for many iTablet applications, since they will probably be similarly encumbered by AT&T restrictions.

This reminds me of the early days of Speech Recognition application, when large companies such as IBM jumped on the marketing bandwagon with specialized medical applications such as IBM MedSpeak/Radiology. That is until they discovered that the market could be sized in the thousands as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of units, and they quickly exited the market.

The fact is medical applications pale in comparison to general consumer applications. Most market opportunities will never be large enough to be sustained on their own. This makes it difficult for vendors to consider niche opportunities for commercial devices when they are tightly regulated in an open market. If Apple were to realize this, they would open up the iPhone and iTablet to niche applications without going through carrier restrictions.

Palm is a flailing company, but it has seen fit to open up its latest internet-based smart phone devices to multiple carriers (http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-10296775-94.html), including Sprint and Verizon. Perhaps the Palm Pre will finally get some traction against the iPhone (yes, I’m a satisfied Palm Pre customer!).

To comment on my cynicism of the $1.99 application from the iStore, while this is a great moneymaker for Apple in the consumer market, again, it may not be a moneymaker for medical applications. On the other hand, if the device were open and had access to multiple vendor’s application stores, this could represent a whole new business opportunity for medical applications vendors! While it may not be practical to charge for each medical application, there may be opportunities for “pay as you need them” specialized applications.

To summarize:

1. One can only hope that the iTablet is unlike the iPhone in that it is an open device. I fear this is not the case, and while it may be generally available for applications such as medical, it will be restricted by the same constraints as the iPhone.

2. If Apple is smart, they will recognize the medical possibilities, and allow the device to be directly integrated with medical applications, such that medical application providers can bundle the iTablet with their application and resell it. With the floodgates about to open on HiTech/Meaningful Use, this would be an astute strategic move.

3. This all could be for naught if the iTablet doesn’t live up to expectations and is just another tablet PC device. I’m betting that Apple won’t let this happen!

4. Could there be a whole new market opportunity for the iStore of medical applications?

As usual, your comments are welcome.

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