There was a sizeable number of things that Apple didn’t have time to talk about doing Monday’s WWDC Keynote, glossing over many of the new features in iOS 13, or barely mentioning them at all. While the company did confirm earlier reports that it would be debuting a new Find My app while introducing macOS 10.15 Catalina, it didn’t have anything to say at all about the personal Bluetooth item trackers that it’s been rumoured to be working on as well.
When we originally heard back in April that Apple would be merging Find My iPhone and Find My Friends into a single unified app, there were also reports that it was working on its own Bluetooth tracker — basically Apple’s answer to the well-known Tile tags. The new hardware product, internally known as B389, is apparently designed to be used mostly for proximity notifications — letting a user know when they move too far away from something like their keys or wallet — although it can also be used to locate lost items through crowdsourcing.
While Apple clearly doesn’t have anything ready to announce yet, it looks like it’s still on the horizon; with the first beta of iOS 13 in developers’ hands, iOS developer Steve Moser has found code in the beta that includes an asset package for a device with a product designation of “Tag1,1.”
As 9to5Mac explains, the type of asset package that Moser found is used for proximity-based pairing, and is the same type of package used for associating AirPods and HomePod with an iOS device. Another asset was also found in the first iOS 13 beta that provides a glimpse of what the device may look like; while it’s likely just a mockup at this point, according to 9to5Mac, it matches the descriptions that they’ve been given by people who are involved in its development.
Although Apple didn’t mention that tags themselves, its description of its new Find My app clearly shows that it’s laid the framework for how these tags would work. With iOS 13 and macOS 10.15 Catalina, it will now be possible to find Apple devices even when they’re offline by having them emit a continuous low-power Bluetooth signal that can be picked up by other nearby Apple devices — even those owned by complete strangers.
In essence, Apple plans to leverage its entire installed base of devices to create a crowdsourced network that can help lost items be tracked. As long as a MacBook, iPhone, or iPad is within Bluetooth proximity of any other Apple device in the world, it will be possible for its owner to locate it through those other devices, and if Apple can do this with MacBooks and iPhones, a separate Bluetooth Tag is an incredibly obvious — and relatively easy — extension of the idea.
To be clear, Apple’s crowdsourcing approach isn’t a new one — products like Tile and TrackR have been doing this for years. However, Apple has something that they don’t — the ability to have the feature automatically enabled on every Apple device on the planet, as opposed to only those that have the necessary vendor-specific apps installed. In Apple’s case, that’s over 1.4 billion iOS devices, and that doesn’t even include MacBooks.
Since your success in locating lost items is based on the likelihood of a compatible device being in proximity to the item, Apple’s solution makes the entire system an order of magnitude more useful. In other words, in order to locate a Tile tracker, it has to be within Bluetooth range of somebody who happens to have the Tile app installed on their device — most likely meaning another Tile user. To locate an Apple tag, it will simply need to be in proximity of somebody who has an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or MacBook — even if they’ve never heard of a Bluetooth tag and have no idea what it is.
We obviously don’t yet have any firm information on when Apple’s new Tag might see the light of day, but it seems most likely that it will accompany the fall announcement of Apple’s newest iPhone lineup and the public debut of iOS 13, which will be required to support the new Tags anyway.