At Apple's launch event Tuesday for its two new iPhones, the company announced the addition of a new hardware component for the device: a motion co-processor, called the M7.
"What does that do?" Apple's Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller asked at the event. "Well, it takes advantage of all these great sensors and it continuously measures the data coming from them without even having to wake up the [the phone's main processor]. It measures the accelerometer, the gyroscope, and the compass. With new software and applications, you are going to get a whole new level of health and fitness solutions never before possible on a mobile phone."
Schiller said that the chip, working in tandem with Apple's now updated Core Motion API, will be able to tell fitness and health apps whether the user is stationary, walking, running, or driving. With this launch Apple has further commoditized activity tracking as a feature of fitness apps. The most recent innovations in the fitness apps space were relatively passive tracking apps like those from Moves and Noom's tracking app for Android, which work in the background. Apple just served up the ability to track activity in the background to any developer -- for iPhone 5s and 5c users, anyway.
To get a sense for how wearable device makers and big name fitness app companies were processing the M7 news, I asked Misfit Wearables cofounder and CEO Sonny Vu, RunKeeper founder and CEO Jason Jacobs, and MapMyFitness cofounder and CEO Robin Thurston for their takes.
Thurston pointed out that at least part of the news wasn't entirely new -- more of an evolution of the iPhone's activity tracking capabilities.
"The CoreMotion API is not a completely new concept as this sensor fusion was first made available to Apple Developers in 2010 with the introduction of gyroscopes in the iPhone 4," he told MobiHealthNews. "Even simple accelerometers were available right out of the gate with iPhone 1. At the time, this technology still had some shortcomings that developers had to work around: power consumption (battery life), gyroscope drift, and sometimes noisy and inaccurate accelerometers."
Thurston said this week's launch will likely help MapMyFitness developers to overcome one of their biggest hurdles to date -- battery life.
"When I first heard of the M7 I thought people were talking about some hot new BMW," Misfit Wearables' Vu told MobiHealthNews. "Turned out to be a chip. Okay well, while it doesn't change the fact that the iPhone is not a wearable device (yet), it is one of the most worn devices -- often next to your body [and] you feel naked without it, etc. Anyway, now everyone can easily make an activity monitoring app using the CoreMotion API."
Jacobs said RunKeeper has seen the trend of passive activity tracking apps coming for a long time. He even wrote a column about these "invisible apps" earlier this year for FastCompany.
"The less work a user has to do to track their fitness, the more data they will track and the more people will do fitness tracking," Jacobs told MobiHealthNews. "This will give companies like us an even bigger opportunity to help these users improve their fitness over time. You can expect that we'll be incorporating these improvements in a meaningful way as we go. Stay tuned."
"We've been working with developers to do this," Schiller said. "They've been doing some amazing work. I'd like to tell you about one of them. Nike. The great team at Nike is creating a new application called Nike+ Move. It is all about helping athletes stay motivated, fit, and active throughout their day. It uses the new M7 chip and Core Motion API as well as GPS to help keep track of the kind of activities you are taking part in throughout the day and where you are doing it. It gives you Nike Fuel Points and lets you compete with friends over Game Center. All in the service of helping you have a more healthy and active lifestyle throughout your day."
Others have reported that Nike views its new Move app as a gateway app to onboard users to its more sophisticated tracking apps or its Nike+ Fuelband device.
Apple's inclusion of the M7 in the new iPhone is an indication that it -- or something like it -- will be an important component in an Apple smart watch, should such a device turn out to be more than just a rumor. More importantly, Apple's decision to add a whole new hardware component to enable better health and fitness apps clearly shows how valuable health-related apps are to the company.