EDIT Jan 20, 2014: I sent Jonathon Schwartz a link to this blog post and received a prompt response over email. I have edited the text of this post in a few places to point out some the issues he raised. He was kind enough to offer a fuller demo, which I have accepted. I will update this post after that as well. For now go to the end of the post for a fuller discussion of his comments.

Care Zone LogoCareZone is a company run by Jonathon Schwartz – the former CEO of Sun. At first glance it appears like yet another crack at solving the Personal Health Records (PHR) problem. The PHR space has been a tough domain for companies to get a grip on, with even well funded attempts like Google Health being forced to shut shop, while still leaving other behemoths with deep pockets like Microsoft HealthVault to contend with. So what is this upstart all about, and is it worth your time? Let’s take a look.

What is PHR and Why Would You be Interested?

If you are a typical working professional over 30, it is likely you have someone in your life you need to care for – a parent, child, partner, yourself, or any combination of them. There are innumerable medical details like vaccination schedules, disease history, allergy lists, Blood Pressure record, insulin levels etc. that one needs to track and monitor. Even if you are not sick you may just want to track your fitness metrics so you can better lose that extra kilo around your waist. It can get a bit hairy tracking all that detail in your head or across a bunch of different tools. Enter PHR – a category of tools to help you consolidate all data about your family’s health.

Like Travel Planning, PHR is a domain whose potential everyone is convinced of, but we are yet to see an implementation that has been successful. Does CareZone have a chance?

The Product

CareZone is a bundle of simple tools – a contact list, calendar for appointments, a journal, a folder for notes and photographs, a mediation log etc. Together, these tools allow you to create a profile for any person you are caring for, and then using tools you can track the details. Once you create a profile, you can invite others to view it and to participate in the caring.

After using the CareZone toolset for a few weeks, it is clear that this is a very minimalist feature set. These features are just enough to get you started, but leave you asking for more. Take these for taste:

  1. None of the tools allow you to sync your data to any external tool. For e.g. you cannot add your reminders to Outlook, or reuse contact details from Google Contacts. (Edit: This was true circa October 2013 when I reviewed the product. As Schwartz pointed out these features have been added since.)

  2. Even within your account if you have profiles for more than one person you care for, you cannot share information across those two profiles. For e.g. if you are caring for two of your children you cannot have a single instance of ‘My wife’ show up as a contact  in both of them.

  3. There is no way to track a metric over a period of time. For e.g. if your child is having a bout of flu and you want to track her body temperature through the period, there is no way for you to tack and chart the data. You’ll have to be happy making a series of notes. (Edit: Schwartz says they are not focussing on the “quantified self community”, which is fine. However even when you are caring for others you’d like to track some metrics over a period of time)

  4. The mobile app does not sync to the main account. I created a profile for my mother and added some medications and some entries in her journal. Her profile does not show up on my Android App. (Edit: It turns out there are bugs in the Android app.)

  5. There is no export/import feature using standard health record file formats.

  6. There are no apps, services or devices that can feed data directly into your account.

It comes across as a simplistic implementation of a barely acceptable Minimum Viable Product (MVP) spec. I hoped for a more mature feature set from a product that was launched nearly 2 years back, and given that many of these are already supported by MS HealthVault and other programs.

The Privacy Policy / Terms of Use

In his introductory blog post, Jonathon Schwartz, CareZone CEO, makes a big deal about privacy,

To be clear, CareZone is a business predicated upon privacy: we are funded by families, not by advertisers, which means you won’t see ads, and you’ll always know our highest priority is to protect your informatoin, not sell it. Unlike a social media site, you’re not our product, you’re our customer.”

The intent is good and worthy of our support. But what does the fine print say? Do the terms and conditions bear out this promise? The Privacy Policy appears generally harmless. But, it is not all clean. For e.g. take this paragraph:

sell, transfer or otherwise share some or all of its assets, including your Personal Information, in connection with a merger, acquisition, reorganization or sale of assets or in the event of bankruptcy.”

The right to sell is not restricted to a change of ownership situation. The investor can decide it’s the best way to exit and your information can be sold to the highest bidder. I would have expected Schwartz to have put in stronger wording about use of Personal Information given he has seen from close quarters how Java was taken to the dogs by Oracle after acquisition.

Even more disappointing is when some direct promises made by Schwartz are contradicted by the fine print. In one of his friendly ‘CEO mailers’ that you get after signing up, he says this about backing up of your data:

Profiles are a great place to add a photo to personalize your account, safely remember vital information — like a social security number — and store emergency contact info.  Once it’s written down, we’ll back it up, and make sure it’s always accessible.”

However the Terms of Use say,

Please note that you, and not CareZone, are responsible for maintaining and protecting your member content. CareZone will not be liable to you for any loss or corruption of your member content, including, but not limited to, any content contained in beloved profiles, or for any costs or expenses associated with backing up or restoring any of your member content.”

In my world that is a violation of trust. Bottom line – if you are really anal about your privacy, you do not want to use this service – or any digital aggregation service not directly paid for by your tax rupees.

Business Model

Better PHR tools are available for free; so it’s no surprise that CareZone has had to change its pricing model since its launch. At that time Schwartz claimed the service will remain free for the first year, but will be charged thereafter at $5 per month per person cared. However the service continues to be free more than six months after it was supposed to go pay-only. As of this writing, the FAQs say they propose to introduce premium features in time. I am very curious to find out what those may be, but I am not holding my breath.

Product Positioning and Differentiation

Perhaps due to the pedigree of the founders CareZone launched to largely positive-to-politely-muted reviews. In many cases the reviews just parroted the company’s views. Take the product’s positioning as an ‘Anti-facebook social network’; I have no idea what Kara Swisher saw in CareZone that made her say things like “The private site, subscription-based and without advertising, feels like Facebook for dealing with illness, creating an online community among family members, as well as others involved in the care”.

The product emphatically fails to live up to any of those tags and lofty reviews. The reality is the PHR market is risky, and there is no differentiation in CareZone’s product. This looks like a recipe for disaster. The only way out for Schwarz and co will be differentiate aggressively. And it is here that I believe there is potential in that marketing message. Let me elaborate.

Caring for one’s near and dear is a fundamental part of being Human. And caring can go beyond medical caring. There are two directions in which CareZone needs to be head – fast and furious – if it wants to remain relevant:

  1. Become a specialist PHR tool with all the bells and whistles, with a partner ecosystem, integrating with medical devices and service providers, so it can become the master repository of a person’s health record; or

  2. Spread horizontally and extend the idea of ‘Caring’ beyond health care – fulfilling its marketing promise of being an ‘anti-facebook social network’.

Consider the following use cases beyond the realm of health:

  1. You want to maintain a complete academic record of your son’s school education, complete with scans of report cards, certificates of achievement, copy of his first prize winning essay – in other words a record of his academic life to hand over to him once he grows up

  2. Apart from maintaining a record, you may also want to stay organized in other aspects of caring for your child – like reminders for paying her fees (and record of all fees paid), next dental appointment, details of her summer camps, and her girl scouts certificates of achievements, etc.

A lot of the such tracking today happens in offline files and folders. Bring that online is perhaps where CareZone can find its feet. For, caring is more than just caring for the sick in your life.

In Conclusion

CareZone is the brain child of Jonathon Schwartz – the former CEO of Sun Microsystems, the man with the unenviable credit of being in charge when the venerable company was sold to Oracle. I am a fan of Schwartz. For a brief time I thought he might pull Sun out of the mess they landed themselves in. But his stint effectively turned out to be a stop gap arrangement of sorts till the board figured out the best way to kill the company. My respect for him is in no mean part due to this beautifully evocative blog post he wrote on Jobs’ passing. With that sort of technical talent and pedigree, CareZone just feels like a very weak startup idea coming from him, executed even more weakly. While this is an important domain, I would like to believe Schwartz has serious tech visionary chops and I wish he would be on to something larger.

As for CareZone itself, there is no compelling value proposition in its present avatar. I would like to see them embrace the larger problem of caring – growing beyond the limited medical caring ring fencing it has forced on itself. With a bit of repositioning it can be achieved. If CareZone can expand their scope into a personal record / scrap book of people you care about, and they can deliver on their promise of total privacy, then they may make a dent. If not, they are lined up for closure; it’s just a matter of time.

EDIT Jan 20, 2014: As noted above, I got some comments from Jonathon Schwartz about how I missed the point about his product. He says he has no interest in becoming a PHR, writing “We’re focused on Moms (and to a lesser extent, Dads) caring for children, or frail parents—as a basic place to get *care* related information, from lists of meds, to emergency contacts or observation journals, into the cloud, and shared with the right collection of family members.” It is my opinion that accurate and detailed medical information (in other words health records) are a central anchor around which actions are planned.

Some of the points he raised are noted in the body of the post. He also pointed me to the cheery reviews for their mobile app on the iTunes Store implying that the app talks to a happy customer base. There is something to be said about serving the needs of a niche, and if they find their audience and are able to make money to pay salaries, more power to them!

He did not, however, have anything to say about the stuff in the privacy section above.