Tile Raising Concerns with Congress About ‘AirTags’ Before They Even Exist

Apple AirTag Concept Credit: EverythingApplePro
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We’ve been hearing rumours for months that Apple is working on a new set of wireless tracking tags that are similar to those made by Tile, but while there are many indications that seem to back up these reports, there’s been no official product announcement by Apple, and of course no real word as to what they’re working on.

However, it seems that the mere assertion that Apple is up to something that would compete with its own business has made Tile nervous, and in an unusual case of antitrust allegations stemming from a product that has only been rumoured, Tile is appearing today before the U.S.House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee to testify against Apple and raise concerns about anticompetitive behaviour on the part of the iPhone maker.

To be clear, the antitrust subcommittee has been inviting companies to testify against various tech giants in order to determine whether companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook wield too much power and are abusing their dominant positions to drive smaller companies out of the marketplace. So in this case, Tile is simply responding to a request, and according to The Washington Post is testifying today alongside companies such as PopSockets, Sonos, and Basecamp, and although none of the others seem to have a major bone to pick specifically with Apple, Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson did make passing mention of Apple and the App Store in addition to comments on Google and Facebook.

Tile, however, is most definitely directing its ire toward Apple, which it claims has hurt its business simply as a result of changes in iOS 13 relating to Bluetooth and location tracking devices. It also claims that Apple’s new Find My closely resembles its own service.

Tile’s Complaint

While Tile makes no specific mention of Apple’s rumoured “AirTags,” it points to Apple’s decision to stop selling Tile products in its retail stores last spring without explanation, around the same time the earliest rumours surfaced that Apple was working on its own Tile-like solution. Prior to this, Apple sold Tile’s products consistently since 2015, and even showcased its technology at a major Apple event in 2018.

Additionally, Tile also points to Apple having poached one of its engineers who, according to Reuters had been sent to Apple’s headquarters back in 2018 to help develop a Siri-related feature, suggesting that this was related to rumours that Apple was working on a hardware product and service that resembled Tile’s own.

After thoughtful consideration and months of bringing our concerns to Apple through regular… channels, Tile has made the decision to continue raising concerns over Apple’s anti-competitive practices.

Kirsten Daru, Tile’s general counsel, in an interview with Reuters

At the actual hearing, being reported on by The Verge’s Nilay Patel, Tile made the point in its opening statement that Apple isn’t providing third-party companies like Tile with the same hardware and software access that Apple itself enjoys, preventing others from offering as seamless of a user experience.

For example, Tile notes that Apple is not allowing any third party access to the Ultra Wideband hardware in the iPhone 11, but also notes that Apple effectively forces the Find My app down users’ throats, preventing it from being deleted and allowing its features to be enabled with a single switch during installation, while Tile’s own features are buried, and location privacy changes in iOS 13 actually remind users to turn off Tile’s location features on a regular basis, as they now do for all apps that allow persistent background location tracking — a move that was announced by Apple as an improvement to user privacy.

Tile’s general counsel, Kirsten Daru, went on to say that in dealing with Apple, companies like Tile, even when they’re the best in the business, are “playing against a team that owns the stadium, the ball, and the league, and can change the rules when it wants.”

What This Means

Tile’s comments to the committee are merely informational, and won’t have any direct or immediate impact on Apple’s plans — this isn’t an actual antitrust case where a judgement may be handed down — but depending on the response of the antitrust subcommittee there may be enough here to give Apple pause.

Tile’s comments on Find My as it exists right now aren’t entirely fair, since the app currently serves a fundamentally different purpose than Tile’s own app and hardware products. Apple’s Find My app is about locating Apple devices that a user owns, as well as their friends who are toting Apple devices, and is really just a merger of Find My iPhone and Find My Friends, which have both been around on Apple’s iPhones for several years now.

So Apple’s choice to put Find My front and centre is justifiable in that particular context, since it’s arguably a device security and anti-theft feature. However, since almost all reports suggest that Find My will be expanded to include support for Apple’s rumoured “AirTags,” what Tile is very obviously concerned about is what Find My will ultimately become when and if Apple actually releases its own tracking tags, and if that comes to pass, Tile’s concerns may very well be justified.

What’s unusual, however, is that we’re really not there yet, and while a lot of evidence pointed to Apple releasing its “AirTags” last fall — a lot of the necessary code was already in place in iOS 13, for example — that didn’t happen, suggesting that either Apple hasn’t worked out the kinks or there are other concerns at play. While Apple traditionally hasn’t been too sensitive to antitrust concerns, usually forging ahead regardless of allegations, the level of scrutiny by U.S. lawmakers has significantly increased in the past couple of years, which may be enough to at least give Apple pause and while it’s very unlikely this would make them cancel the “AirTags” project, it could make them rethink how they would position a solution that could be viewed as anti-competitive.

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