Google, Microsoft and the Online Health Divide

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-02-29

Google, Microsoft and the Online Health Divide

The introduction of Google's PHR (personal health record) effort by Google CEO Eric Schmidt Feb. 28 has some observers saying it could be a complement to Microsoft's own HealthVault initiative.

Google Health and HealthVault are vying to help people manage their PHRs from a single portal. The assumption is that, as they do in everything else, Google and Microsoft will compete to offer PHR systems. However, one consultant who services health care payers and providers said the companies are tackling the challenge in such different ways that they are poised to complement each other.

Andrew Rocklin, principal of Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, told eWEEK that Microsoft wants to be more of a middleman that stores the data, with partners putting front and back ends on it.

For example, Microsoft is partnering with device manufacturers of glucose and blood pressure monitors-vendors who provide back-end information-as much as it is with service providers such as ActiveHealth Management, which offers its own PHR application, to snap on to the front of HealthVault.

Google Health partners include retailers with pharmacies, such Wal-Mart Stores, Walgreen and Duane Reade.

"Essentially, Microsoft wants to become the platform through which these partners connect, and hopefully knit together enough value to attract consumers," Rocklin said. "Google, on the other hand, is going closer to the source with a consumer-facing PHR."

Google and Microsoft are taking complementary approaches that could coexist in the long run, but success will depend on finding the right partners that connect consumers with what they value, said Rocklin, who did not rule out the potential for overlap that would put the two companies in competition.

Because Google Health is not fully formed and could change between now and its release later in 2008, Missy Krasner, product marketing manager for Google Health, declined to compare and differentiate the service from Microsoft's HealthVault.

However, she hinted that one competitive differentiator could be Google's core competency: search capabilities in Google Health.

Krasner also said Google is trying to offer more of a platform than an application, allowing people to build on top of it.

Google and Microsoft Approaches to Online Health

"We wouldn't offer a refill service or the ability to securely e-mail your doctor," Krasner told eWEEK. "We're looking for third parties to be able to do that. Other people come in, build using our APIs. It's up to the user to decide who they want to work with."

Beyond third-party application providers, she said Google is partnering with clinical delivery system providers, medical groups, retail pharmacies and labs such as Quest Diagnostics.

This would seem to put Google in direct competition with Microsoft. Sean Nolan, chief architect and general manager of the Health Solutions Group at Microsoft, said Rocklin's assessment is largely accurate, save for some nuances.

"We come at it as platform with some apps to support, they come at it as application with some platform aspects to support," Nolan told eWEEK.

While Microsoft positions HealthVault as a platform first, it is just as interested in developing front-end technologies, specifically some consumer-centric projects with the Mayo Clinic. Meanwhile, Google users can write applications on top of Google Health using the GData API. 

As a result, Google Health and HealthVault will increasingly overlap with one another with the passage of time, Nolan said.

In the meantime, he said there is plenty of online health care pie for both vendors, and said it is too early to draw competitive comparisons and sling FUD.

Rocklin said Google and Microsoft could work together for the betterment of online health. Noting Google's open-source leanings, he said he expects application vendors to write apps or widgets that would snap onto Google Health. Programmers could conceivably write an application that pulls data out of HealthVault and moves it over to Google Health.

A lot has to happen between now and then.

In the meantime, Microsoft will keep signing up partners and Google will continue to pilot its Health service, allowing Cleveland Clinic patients to access their PHRs via a Gmail address and a secure password.

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