Last Week on My Wrist: Apple could change the world

We used to dread the phone ringing. When my father lived on his own, it was all too often his neighbour or carer telling us that they’d just found him confused on the floor. Even worse was the hour from nine each evening, when he was supposed to call us. When it got to almost ten, we never knew whether he had fallen asleep or was lying unconscious in a pool of blood.

Around the world, there must be tens, maybe hundreds of millions of elderly like my Dad.

In addition, there are many people who work or go alone into situations where others may not be immediately to hand to help them when things go wrong. There are countless diabetics, epileptics, shepherds, roofers, even office cleaners, who could lie collapsed and dying for some time before anyone discovered them.

My father had an emergency alert system, a small button on a necklace which linked into a wireless base station, and over his phone line to remote carers. It only worked so long as he was within his home, and was completely reliant on him pressing the emergency button. All too often, he either refused to do so, or was physically unable to as a result of the fall.

Last week, Apple demonstrated its new Watch Series 4, which offers features such as fall detection, heart rhythm monitoring, and ECG, together with the potential of automatic alert and remote diagnosis. It has already received FDA approval as a medical device, which is perhaps Apple’s most extraordinary achievement here, and should herald approval in the EU and other jurisdictions too.

Unlike many older people, my father could have readily afforded the cost of what is a luxury consumer item. But he had deliberately avoided ever having a computer, tablet, or smart phone, despite ample opportunity to be helped to use them. After considerable pressure, he had reluctantly bought himself a cheap ‘pay as you go’ mobile phone some years ago, but steadfastly refused to be helped to use it, and never even charged it up.

The Watch Series 4 is bristling with sophisticated features, and I’m sure will be a delight to all who own them (myself inevitably included, as my Series 0 is overdue replacement). The thought of it saving so many lives of well-heeled younger people across North America, Europe, and Japan is very encouraging indeed.

But for once, I think that there is a much greater opportunity, for Apple not just to enter the footnotes of human history, but to start a chapter of its own.

Consider for a moment developing from the Series 4 to cater not for the rich technophile, but for your Arkansas/Shetland/Romanian granny. She’d like to tell the time, of course, and needs the fall detection and health monitoring features. Those could then connect via local Wi-Fi, or a special low-cost mobile service deal which only handled such emergency traffic. She’d like longer battery endurance, and more friendly charging. But that is about as much as she’d want to cope with.

I know that, by the standards of other medical devices, the cost of a basic Watch Series 4 is quite modest. But a purpose-designed reduced-feature model targeted at those hundreds of millions of people could surely be considerably less. Neither would those sales compromise the rich profits which these new luxury models will deservedly generate.

Apple has the opportunity to change human history in a very significant way. Will it rise to this occasion?