Source: Apple Inc.
On Tuesday, Apple announced a long-awaited gadget called the AirTag. Users can clip the coin-sized device to valuables like keys or a backpack for $ 29, and then find it on a live map in Apple’s built-in Find My software.
AirTag competes with a number of other products in the market, including Tile, whose General Counsel complained before Congress Wednesday about Apple’s overall dominance.
The main differentiator from AirTag, however, isn’t the technology in the $ 29 stainless steel gadget. It’s other people’s iPhones.
AirTag does not have a GPS signal that would quickly drain the battery and raise privacy issues. When attached to a lost item, it sends encrypted Bluetooth signals instead. In order for these signals to reach the internet and inform the person who is looking for their lost device, they need to find an iPhone waiting for them.
“With Bluetooth and the hundreds of millions of iOS, iPadOS and MacOS devices in active use around the world, the user can find a missing device even if it cannot connect to a Wi-Fi or cellular network,” explained Apple in a security statement about the Find My service. “Any iOS, iPadOS or MacOS device that has” Offline Search “enabled in the” Find My “settings can act as a” Finder device “.
The product represents a new frontier for Apple: With its installation base of over 1 billion iPhones as infrastructure, services can be created that the competition cannot. Now, iPhones are part of a physical network around the world that searches for stolen goods – even if their users have never bought an AirTag.
“The bottom line is that AirTag is an example of how Apple is using its ecosystem to create a more compelling product than it is currently on the market,” wrote Gene Munster, founder of Loup Ventures, in a newsletter Tuesday. “In particular, AirTag will have better navigation and detection capabilities, as well as a network of over a billion devices that will help locate lost items.”
Registering on the Find My network has advantages for iPhone users who do not purchase AirTags. Lots of users sign up because the same app can be used to find lost Apple products. It’s easy to do when you sign into an iCloud account on an iPhone.
The Find My network can be used to find an iPhone after turning it off, as thieves often do after stealing a phone. (When the device is on, it can be contacted through Find My iPhone, a similar service that uses the device’s Internet connection and is older than the Find My network.)
Users can also turn off the Find My Network network in Apple Settings. However, this means that they cannot take advantage of the network, e.g. B. Finding devices that are turned off or not connected to cellular or Bluetooth. (To do this, go to Settings> Your Name> Find My> Find My iPhone> and toggle Find My Network on or off.)
A huge global network
The number of devices participating in the network is of crucial importance for a product like AirTag.
Apple describes its Find My service as a “huge global network” and allows third party accessory sellers to publish products that also use it.
If an AirTag is lost in the middle of a desert with no Apple devices in Bluetooth range, it won’t be able to connect to the internet to send signals or update the user’s map. But in the middle of an American city, where an estimated 42% of people have iPhones – more in some areas – you’re far more likely to find a device looking for your lost AirTag.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, previously described Apple’s product strategy as “Apple only”. As the company develops hardware, develops software and operates its own online services, it can introduce functions that competitors such as Microsoft, Google or Samsung cannot.
Samsung or other major smartphone vendors may have a similar number of phones in their hands, but they don’t control the underlying operating system, which makes it much more difficult to implement features like Find My at the same time.
For Apple, AirTag is likely an attempt to add differentiators to its iPhone to discourage current users from switching to an Android device. It’s likely not a major sales driver.
“While the airtags are incremental to our model, we don’t think that even a very successful launch of this product, given its low price of $ 29, will have much of an impact on our projections,” wrote Rod Hall, an analyst at Goldman Sachs. on Tuesday in a note.
If Apple can better use its installed devices as a data protection infrastructure, this could represent a lasting advantage for the company. Apple’s installed base of iPhones could become particularly important as it invests heavily in augmented reality, a technology that connects the physical and digital worlds.
For example, a network of location-based iPhones could be used in augmented reality apps like Pokemon Go to determine where other players are competing against each other and to start a group experience. It provides the sensors and internet connection necessary to have digital experiences in the real world without building new devices every time.
The privacy perspective
AirTag is also an important test of Apple’s privacy positioning.
Since 2015, Apple has been promoting privacy and security as the main differentiator for its iPhone. Systems like Covid-tracking exposure notifications have been created consistently and are decentralized. This means that they are designed to process and compute data on a device rather than on servers that Apple can access.
Apple is building on this reputation to reassure customers that the Find My system as a search device will not lose user locations or data. Apple says the Find My network keeps location data private and anonymous, and does not store location data or history.
How Apple does it is a matter of complicated software development. “Find My is based on advanced public-key cryptography,” said Apple’s security statement.
Now Apple’s users need to decide whether to understand and trust the Find My network and Apple – both as users and as iPhone users who participate in them in order for them to function better.