AirTags Are Coming: New Code Found in iOS 14.3 Shows How They’ll Work

Apple AirTags Concept Image Credit: Voicu Apostol
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With this week’s release of the first developer beta of iOS 14.3, it looks like Apple’s long-awaited AirTags may be closer than ever, with new code found in the beta clearly showing a user-facing on-boarding process for the new accessories, along with several new insights into exactly how they’ll work.

Discovered by developer and MacRumors contributor Steve Moser, the code actually seems to be designed to more generically support a wide range of tracking tags, likely as the fulfillment of Apple’s plans to open up its ‘Find My’ network to potential AirTags competitors like Tile and others, although of course it stands to reason that the same features will also be used for Apple’s own first-party AirTags.

As we’ve long suspected, it will be Apple’s Find My app that forms the heart of this system, which makes sense as it’s been around since 2010 in its original incarnation as “Find My iPhone” — it was only last year that Apple chose to roll in the functionality of its Find My Friends app and rebrand it as a new unified app named simply Find My.

Leaving aside the obvious and awkward dangling participle, the app’s name really does illustrate its new role, as the Find My app is poised to become the central hub for finding, well, pretty much everything.

Right now, this includes your Apple devices and your friends, but with iOS 14.3 that’s going to include pretty much anything else that you can attach a location tracking tag to, whether that’s one of Apple’s yet-to-be-released AirTags or a third-party product that’s opted into Apple’s Find My network.

The most interesting part of Moser’s find is a new video in the first beta, codenamed “Hawkeye” which not only illustrates the pairing process, but even offers a hint at what Apple’s rumoured AirPods Studio on-ear headphones might look like (assuming of course that the icon shown is intended to be photorealistic).

To be clear, it’s not possible at this point to call up this video in the Find My app, as even if the code was there to present it, there are not yet any compatible devices that could be used to initiate the pairing process.

How AirTags Will Work

Beyond the video, however, MacRumors has also shared a long list of strings that provide some insights into how tags will work, from which we can glean the following:

  1. Bluetooth: Not surprisingly, it looks like all tracking tags will primarily use Bluetooth, even if they offer support for other features like Ultra Wideband. The code clearly indicates that Bluetooth is a requirement in order to pair an item.
  2. Apple IDs: Once AirTags or other third-party tags are paired to an iPhone, it looks like they’ll be associated with the user’s Apple ID, as one of the error messages tells users that the item they’re trying to connect to is already paired to someone else’s Apple ID, along with another message that tells users that removing an item will unlink it from their Apple ID.
  3. Emoji Support: It will be possible to not only name your tags, but also select an emoji to associate with them.
  4. Limited Tags: There will be a maximum number of tags that can be associated with a given Apple ID, and although it’s not clear what that number will be, once users hit that limit, they’ll need to remove an old tag before they can add a new one.
  5. Battery Status: It appears that the Find My app will be able to track battery status from various tags and offer up notifications as to when batteries will need to be replaced.
  6. Looking up Lost Items: Another set of messages suggests that it will be possible for iPhone users to scan a found AirTag or other compatible location tracking tag to attempt to reunite it with its owner. One message notes that “You can learn more about lost items, or see if the owner has left a message, by connecting to it,” while another message reads, “the owner can see its location.”
  7. Movement Tracking: It looks like Find My will also be able to distinguish between items that are stationary and those that are being carried on your person, with the text “This item has been moving with you for a while.”
  8. Security Requirements: Another message in the code indicates that users will have to “update your account security” to add items to Find My, although it’s unclear whether this means Apple is introducing new security requirements for tracking tags, or if it simply refers to something like adding two-factor authentication.

Anti-Stalking Features

Apple also appears to have considered the possibility that somebody else might plant an AirTag or other tracking tag on your person or property in order to stalk you, and will apparently notify you if an unknown tag has been moving around with you with messages like “Unknown accessory detected” and “This item has been moving with you for a while. The owner can see its location.”

It also offers up several suggestions in the event that you find such a tag, including, “If this item is not familiar to you, learn how to disassemble it and stop sharing your location.” and “If you feel your safety is at risk due to this item, contact your local law enforcement.”

When’s It Coming?

Unfortunately, nothing in the code provides any insight as to when AirTags may actually arrive, and in fact these changes are just as much to support third-party tracking tags as they are to support AirTags, and in fact as hard as it may be to believe, Apple might even be waiting until third-party products are on board before releasing its own AirTags just to avoid any potential unpleasantness with antitrust investigations.

For example, Apple’s major potential competitor for AirTags, Tile, has already been stoking the fires of antitrust regulators since earlier this year, and while it’s unclear if Tile will be willing to play by Apple’s rules to join the Find My network, even if Apple is able to include other competitors before launching its own AirTags it would go a long way to stemming accusations of anti-competitive behaviour.

In fact, despite AirTags going into production back in August, and by all reports being ready, Apple hasn’t seemed to be in much of a hurry to release them, which has generally suggested that either the rumours of them being ready are completely untrue, or the company is simply waiting for the opportune moment, and after reports of a delay into March 2021, we actually began to suspect potential antitrust concerns on Apple’s part, and today’s revelations from iOS 14.3 seem to add one of the missing pieces to that puzzle by suggesting that Apple wants to get ahead of any potential strife by making sure that as many third parties are at the table as well before finally debuting its own first-party product.

At this point, Apple seems to be finished with all of its fall events, having released its Apple Silicon M1 MacBooks earlier this week without so much as a mention of anything else, and it’s hard to believe that something like AirTags would slip out via press release, so early 2021 is really starting to sound a lot more likely for a debut, but at this point anything is still possible.

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