Apple Opening up ‘Find My’ to Tile and Other Third-Party Tracking Tags

iPhone Find My App Credit: Konstantin Savusia / Shutterstock
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Although there was no mention of Apple’s much-rumoured AirTags during this week’s WWDC Keynote, it looks like Apple’s own new item trackers won’t be the only devices that will be allowed to take advantage of Apple’s expanded tracking features.

During Apple’s “State of the Union” developer session that immediately followed the WWDC Keynote, Apple announced that it’s opening up its “Find My” technology to create a new “Find My network” that third-party developers will be able to plug into and take advantage of.

As Apple describes it, the Find My network is “a crowdsourced network of hundreds of millions of Apple devices that can help users locate a missing iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch” and will soon include third-party “Find My network-enabled accessories.”

In other words, Apple is letting companies like Tile leverage the power of Apple’s background wireless device location technology through a set of APIs that will be baked into iOS 14.

Conceptually, this will be similar to how third-party home accessory makers tie into the HomeKit ecosystem, with Apple providing the foundation that enables things like background tracking and its own crowdsourced infrastructure and accessory makers simply designing their tags to work with Apple’s protocols.

It’s sort of hard to say whether this was a plan that Apple was considering all along, or whether it’s caved to the pressure that’s almost certainly about to be brought to bear by antitrust regulators, but either way it should not only help to appease potential competitors like Tile, but generally offer a much more open and friendly ecosystem of products that users can take advantage of.

Solid rumours that Apple has been working on its own AirTags Bluetooth item trackers since at least this time last year have naturally made other companies that are in the same business somewhat nervous, chief among these being Tile, which raised concerns with U.S. lawmakers earlier this year, and petitioned European antitrust regulators to launch an investigation into Apple’s allegedly anti-competitive behaviour.

While it may seem like Tile is jumping the gun, its complaint is based on more than an as-yet-unannounced product, since Apple also poached at least one of its engineers and suddenly stopped selling Tile’s products in its retail stores — only weeks before rumours surfaced that Apple was working on its own AirTags. So it’s easy to see how this could be viewed as an attempt by Apple to push out a competitor before launching its own technology.

Similarly, it’s also not hard to imagine that Apple’s decision to create the new Find My network and embrace third-party trackers may very well have been made to head off any potential fallout from Tile’s complaints, especially as the company faces antitrust investigations on several different fronts.

What This Means

It remains to be seen whether companies like Tile will want to join up with Apple’s new initiative, but barring any problems with the fine print, it’s hard to see how they wouldn’t.

Presently, accessories like Tile rely on their own iOS apps to handle tracking of lost item tags, and Tile has its own crowdsourced network of Tile users. However, this network only includes those who have installed the actual Tile app on their devices, and of course due to the usual background restrictions on iOS apps, the Tile app isn’t necessarily always up and running to track lost items.

By contrast, Apple’s Find My network is a core iOS level feature, so it’s always running in the background, and it’s enabled on every iPhone by default. This would expand Tile’s network from about 10 million devices that could be used to locate lost items to well over a billion, as well as taking away all of the headaches of relying on a specific iOS app to do the tracking.

It’s less clear what Tile and other companies may have to give up to go with Apple’s solution, although it certainly seems that they’ll lose some autonomy, since they likely won’t be able to collect location data through their own servers, but will have to rely on Apple’s privacy-focused platform, which keeps everything securely encrypted. This is a definite win for end users, but companies that like to collect tracking and analytical data won’t be fans of it.

How It Will Work

Tile and other devices like it have been doing crowdsourced location tracking for years, and it’s a fairly simple concept. You attach a tag to an item like your keychain, and it broadcasts a Bluetooth beacon that can be picked up by other devices nearby. Should you lose your keys, you can open up an app and (hopefully) find where you left them based on other nearby devices picking up the Bluetooth beacon on your tag and reporting it to the network, along with their location.

So, for example, if you leave your keys behind at a restaurant, you could open up the app to look for them, and as long as somebody else who is part of the same network is near your keys, their device will report the location for you.

With most tracking tags, being “part of the same network” requires that others be running the same app, which reduces the probability that you’ll find your missing item. In the case of Apple’s Find My network, however, every single iPhone on the planet will be participating in the network by default, without even knowing it, meaning that as long as any random person with an iPhone is near your tag, you’ll be able to locate it.

Of course, this comes with a huge potential privacy downside, but it’s one that Apple has taken some clever steps to address, and the same technology that’s used for locating iPhones, iPads, and Macs will also secure item tags from third-party companies that choose to participate in the Find My network.

The Find My network uses advanced cryptographic techniques to make sure that not only are the location details of devices kept completely private — even Apple can’t track you — but also that it doesn’t open the door to stalkers by broadcasting the location of your devices over Bluetooth.

As Apple notes on its Find My network page, the whole system uses advanced end-to-end encryption, industry-leading security, and is designed to be entirely anonymous.

What About AirTags?

Apple’s decision to open up the Find My network may raise the question as to the status of its own AirTags, and whether it may have abandoned the project.

While that’s certainly a possibility, we think it’s more likely that Apple decided that AirTags will be able to compete on their own merits by offering other advanced technologies such that Apple doesn’t need to worry about shutting out competitors. For example, the Find My network spec appears to only include Bluetooth technology right now, so Apple could be reserving ultra wideband features for its own AirTags.

However, it’s also worth asking how much of a cash cow Apple really expects AirTags to be. Certainly, Find My is more about expanding the reach of the Apple ecosystem overall than it is about selling yet another new hardware accessory, so embracing third-party developers could be a much bigger win for Apple, even if they do end up in competition with Apple’s own AirTags product.

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