This week Apple released the third beta of iOS 14.5 to developers, providing the best evidence we’ve seen yet that support for third-party item trackers is right around the corner, most likely along with the debut of Apple’s own AirTags.
Of course, we’ve known about AirTags for a while — the first indications that Apple was working on its own Tile-like item tracking tags appeared in early 2019, complete with code in the iOS 13 betas — but it’s clear that Apple has been walking a long road with this particular accessory, likely for both technical and business reasons.
In fact, it was almost a year ago that Apple leaked the new product name in a support video, and yet despite report after report that they were just around the corner — and even that they were already in production early last fall, they remained conspicuously absent at every Apple event.
While there may have been multiple reasons for this — after all, nobody really needs item tracking tags in the middle of a pandemic lockdown — it’s likely that the biggest obstacle came from the antitrust complaints being raised by Tile.
Even though Apple has shown a seemingly callous indifference to antitrust issues when it comes to its hugely profitable businesses like the App Store, it’s probably safe to say that it wasn’t willing to poke the bear with an accessory as relatively minor as AirTags.
After all, it’s hard to believe that Apple expects to make billions of dollars selling AirTags; the company’s most likely goal for the accessory would ultimately be to draw more people into the Apple ecosystem, as well as promote its brilliant and extremely privacy-focused crowdsourced location tracking network.
Last spring, Apple surprised us by unveiling a Find My Network, designed to embrace third-party accessory makers who wanted to benefit from the same location tracking features that Apple’s AirTags were supposed to include. While the announcement came out of the blue, in retrospect it wasn’t all that surprising, since it would have allowed AirTags’ competitors to play along, taking all the steam out of their antitrust arguments — even if the requirements for admission are slightly steep.
After that announcement, Apple clearly began moving ahead with a more generic Find My Items system in iOS 14, and it wasn’t long before we began finding hidden set up screens in the iOS 14.3 and iOS 14.4 betas that pretty much confirmed exactly what Apple was up to.
Further, by the time January rolled around, with all the usual product announcements at CES, third-party accessory makers like Belkin also began vaguely announcing Find My support for products such as new headphones, and indications appeared last week that Apple’s Beats lineup of headphones will also be ready to participate soon too.
Now, however, iOS 14.5 beta 3 has removed all pretence that Find My Items is supposed to be a secret, with the previously hidden screens now prominently displayed for all to see, and even including a standard “What’s New” screen explaining the new feature.
Support for Accessories: Add non-Apple products to Find My. Locate your backpack, luggage, headphones, or other items.
Find My network: Locate your devices on a map, even when they are not connected to Wi-Fi or cellular.
While it’s still not apparent how these features will work in practical terms, since many existing products like Powerbeats don’t contain any special chips (like Apple’s U1 chip), yet support the Find My network, presumably the system will predominantly function over Bluetooth, which is something that can easily be enabled in a software update for just about any Bluetooth-capable device.
The ability to locate a device on a map is undoubtedly powered by the same kind of crowdsourcing that Tile has been using for its tags for years, except that in Apple’s ecosystem, every single iPhone, iPad, and MacBook on the planet will be capable of picking up any nearby devices — and they’ll do so securely and privately — making it much more likely that you’ll be able to successfully track down your lost item.
That said, Apple’s own AirTags are expected to gain ultra wide-band (UWB) support to provide for even more precise location of lost items — a U1-equipped iPhone would be able to track a missing AirTag right down to its specific location in a room — and it looks like Apple won’t be the only one adopting this technology, as Tile is already working on its own UWB tags, although it’s unclear if they’ll be joining the Apple Find My network or simply relying on Tile’s more limited system.
Still, with iOS 14.5 ready to take the wraps off the Find My network, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll see AirTags — and probably at least one other iPhone-compatible tracking tag — ready to debut some time this month.