One of the more surprising announcements to come out of this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference was the news that Apple will allow third-party developers to play in its “Find My” sandbox, opening up the technology which the company has developed for locating iPhones, iPads, Macs, and AirPods to be leveraged by other companies who make third-party tracking tags, such as Tile.
Although we’ve been hearing about Apple’s AirTags since at least this time last year, the company has yet to announce anything in this area, and to be fair we haven’t even heard any real solid rumours lately as to when they might be coming. Code to support them appeared in iOS 13, and there have been numerous hints that they’re almost ready to go, but in typical Apple fashion, the company has been completely silent on the matter — so silent in fact that we haven’t even been hearing much from the usual leakers.
Mind you, Apple has also come under fire from competitors for potentially shutting out the competition in the process of releasing its own AirTags. Chief among these is Tile, which has been pushing both with U.S. lawmakers and European regulators to investigate Apple for potentially anticompetitive behaviour.
Were such an investigation to occur, it would simply light yet another fire, adding to the antitrust investigations that are already underway in the EU and poised to begin in the U.S., so it’s not difficult to imagine that Apple may be delaying its own AirTags until the heat cools down a bit.
In fact, the decision to open up its Find My Network came so out of the blue that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t prompted by all of the scrutiny that Apple is currently under, and several features coming to iOS 14 and the HomePod could also easily be seen as directly related to taking off some of the pressure by showing that Apple is, in fact, being cooperative with third parties.
To be clear, Tile’s allegations of anticompetitive behaviour are about far more than just the possibility of Apple releasing a competing product. Tile is also very naturally concerned about Apple’s “home field advantage” when it comes to releasing its own product on iOS, specifically that Apple’s own AirTags will be able to take advantage of capabilities that Apple denies to its own third-party partners.
For example, while Tile requires that users download a specific app and keep it running, AirTags support would be built into iOS, alongside the Find My app, and would therefore work out of the box with every possible iPhone and iPad on the planet, which would be part of a much bigger device location network than Tile could ever hope to achieve — by a factor of about 100, in fact. Basically, Tile’s tags could only be located by other Tile users — those who had downloaded and installed the Tile app — whereas Apple’s AirTags could be located by any iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or Mac.
To make matters worse, Apple’s privacy improvements in iOS 13 have impacted Tile in a negative way by forcing users to jump through hoops to enable the necessary always-on background location tracking that’s needed for Tile’s tags to work, and with news of Apple’s own AirTags on the horizon, Tile has naturally taken this change somewhat personally, even though Apple insists that it was done only for privacy reasons, and not to disadvantage potential competitors.
The ‘Open’ Find My Network
Undoubtedly at least partially as a response to these sort of complaints, Apple announced last month during WWDC that it was going to open up its Find My Network to allow third-party developers to take advantage of it.
The goal here would be to embrace third-party developers like Tile by letting them integrate with the same features that Apple already offers in iOS for locating existing Apple devices, meaning that no additional apps would be required, and every Apple device would automatically be participating in the larger network.
In theory, this would put Tile on the same footing as Apple’s AirTags when they’re eventually released. Unfortunately, considering how strictly Apple runs most of its partner programs — from the App Store to the Made-for-iPhone hardware program — it should come as absolutely no surprise that this isn’t going to be a free ride for third-party hardware makers. Apple has naturally wrapped it up in a whole series of terms and conditions, some of which may be onerous enough to still raise antitrust concerns.
A new report from The Washington Post suggests that Apple’s decision to open up its Find My Network is not nearly as altruistic as many had hoped, and it actually comes with a pretty restrictive set of conditions that may end up being a price much higher price of admission than some companies are willing to pay.
The Devil Is in the Details
Apple’s public announcement of the program was vague, and the actual details of the program are only being released to developers who agree to a strict non-disclosure agreement. However, the Post received a 50-page PDF from the new program that reveals a strict set of restrictions that Apple has placed on how third-party manufacturers and customers will be able to interact with its Find My network, and it paints a somewhat bleaker picture for some.
For example, devices that are tied to the Find My app will be prohibited from using other competing services simultaneously. So for example, if Tile were to join Apple’s Find My Network, they’d have to give up their own Tile app ecosystem in order to tie directly into Apple’s. It’s a bit unclear whether this is a choice that could be made by customers — such as whether a Tile owner could choose to register their tag with Find My or the Tile app — but it’s definitely clear that both cannot be used with the same tag.
Developers speaking with the Post have emphasized how unusual this move is even when it comes to other accessories with the Apple Made-for-iPhone ecosystem. For example, HomeKit accessory makers are not precluded in any way from also making their devices work with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or other competing services, and even customers can use multiple smart home systems simultaneously (whether they should or not is another discussion entirely, but the point is that Apple doesn’t prevent this in any way).
While disallowing the use of multiple location apps on the same device may not seem like a big problem, developers note that this does present one potentially serious problem: interoperability with other platforms. Apple’s Find My Network is naturally only available on Apple’s own devices, so it could potentially rule out the ability for tracking tags to be located from other platforms, such as Android devices.
Security and Privacy
To be fair, Apple may be doing this at least partially for security and privacy reasons. Apple’s Find My Network has been built in a very secure manner, using randomized Bluetooth IDs and sophisticated encryption to ensure that it’s not possible for anybody but the owner to actually located a device that’s part of the network. It’s actually a very good design, and a very clever one, but allowing the tags to also be tracked by other location services networks could create a chink in that armour. Further, it may also require item tracking tags to be registered to the network in a specific way that may not be compatible with other tracking services.
Apple actually faces similar concerns with HomeKit, where it’s also created one of the most secure home automation systems available, with gaping holes that are created by compatibility with other internet-of-things devices that may have their own services, even beyond Alexa and Google Home. For example, Philips Hue lights can be controlled by HomeKit or through the Hue app, which uses Philips’ own online service to do so. This provides another point for hackers to access that bypasses the great security that Apple has built into HomeKit. In fact, this is actually why Apple has partnered with several manufacturers to offer HomeKit-enabled routers.
Of course, there’s a big difference between a hacker playing with your lights and actually tracking the location of you or your personal items, so it’s understandable that Apple may want to be a lot more cautious with its Find My Network. Further, unlike HomeKit where it was coming into a somewhat established market, it doesn’t necessarily have to worry about catering to a large ecosystem of existing accessories — it’s in a much better place to try and set the tone of the new system.
For its part, Apple is denying that its policies are anticompetitive, arguing that the goal of its new open Find My Network is to actually open up the playing field to even more competition. As Apple spokesperson Alex Kirschner notes, many smaller companies don’t have the resources to build their own location-finding service, adding that “If you were a smaller player interested in getting into the finding space and you haven’t built a finding network, this allows you to do that.”