Apple AirTag relies on a huge installed iPhone base

Apple Airtag

Source: Apple Inc.

On Tuesday, Apple announced a highly anticipated gadget called AirTag. Users can attach the device the size of a $ 29 coin to valuables such as keys or a backpack and then locate it on a live map in Apple’s built-in Find My software.

AirTag competes with a number of other products in the market, including from Tile, whose general counsel complained before Congress on Wednesday about Apple’s overall dominance.

But AirTag’s main distinguishing feature isn’t the technology in the $ 29, coin-sized stainless steel gadget. They are other people’s iPhones.

AirTag has no GPS signal, which quickly drains the battery and raises privacy concerns. Instead, when attached to a lost item, it sends encrypted Bluetooth signals. For those signals to reach the internet and notify the person looking for their lost device, they need to find an iPhone that listens to them.

Using Bluetooth and the hundreds of millions of iOS, iPadOS and macOS devices in active use around the world, the user can locate a lost device even if it cannot connect to a Wi-Fi or cellular network ” , Apple explains in a security statement about the Find My service. Any iOS, iPadOS, or macOS device that has ‘offline search’ enabled in Find My settings can act as a ‘search device’.

The product represents a new frontier for Apple: using its installation base of more than 1 billion iPhones as an infrastructure to build services that its competitors cannot. Now iPhones are part of a physical network in the world looking for stolen goods, even if their users have never purchased an AirTag.

“The bottom line is that AirTag is an example of Apple using its ecosystem to create a more compelling product than what is currently on the market,” Loup Ventures founder Gene Munster wrote in a newsletter Tuesday. In particular, AirTag will have enhanced navigation and detection capabilities, along with a more than a billion device network that can be used to retrieve lost items.

Joining the Find My network benefits iPhone users who don’t purchase AirTags. Many users sign up because the same app can be used to find lost Apple products, and it’s easy to do when you sign in to an iCloud account on an iPhone.

The Find My network can be used to find an iPhone after it is turned off, as thieves often do after stealing a phone. (If the device is on, it can be contacted through Find My iPhone, a similar service that uses the device’s internet connection and is older than the Find My network.)

Users can also opt out of Find My Network in Apple’s settings, although that means they won’t get the benefits of the network, such as finding devices that are turned off or not connected to cellular or Bluetooth. (To do this, go to Settings> Your Name> Find My> Find My iPhone> and turn Find My Network on or off.)

A huge, global network

The number of devices participating in the network is crucial for a product like AirTag.

Apple describes its Find My service as a “huge, global network” and allows third-party accessory manufacturers to release products that also use it.

If an AirTag is lost in the middle of a desert with no Apple devices within Bluetooth range, it will not be able to connect to the internet to send signals or update the user’s map. But in the middle of an American city, where an estimated 42% of people have iPhones – more in some areas – you’re much more likely to find a device looking for your lost AirTag.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has previously described Apple’s product strategy as “ Apple only, ” suggesting that because the company builds hardware, develops software, and operates its own online services, it may introduce features that rivals such as Microsoft, Google, or Samsung cannot. .

While Samsung or other major smartphone vendors own a similar number of phones, they have no control over the underlying operating system, making features like Find My much more difficult to deploy on a large scale all at once.

For Apple, AirTag is likely an attempt to add distinctive features to its iPhone to discourage current users from switching to an Android device. It’s probably not a major source of income.

“While the Airtags are incremental to our model, we don’t believe that even a very successful launch of that product will have much impact on our forecasts given the low $ 29 price,” Goldman Sachs analyst Rod Hall wrote in a Tuesday. note.

As Apple becomes more proficient at using the installed devices as a privacy-sensitive infrastructure, it could be a sustainable benefit to the business. The number of installed iPhones from Apple could become especially important as it invests heavily in augmented reality, a technology that blends the physical and digital worlds.

A network of location-aware iPhones could be used in augmented reality apps like Pokemon Go, for example, to determine where other players compete and start a group experience. It provides the sensors and internet connection needed to build real-world digital experiences without having to build new equipment every time.

The privacy corner

AirTag is also an important test of Apple’s privacy positioning.

Since 2015, Apple has advertised privacy and security as key differentiators for its iPhone. It has consistently built systems, such as Covid tracking exposure reports, that are decentralized, meaning they are designed to process and calculate data on a device, rather than servers that Apple can access.

Apple builds on that reputation to assure customers that the Find My system will not leak user location or data when acting as a search device. Apple says the Find My network keeps location data private and anonymous, and it doesn’t store location data or history.

How Apple does it is a matter of complicated software engineering. “Find My is built on advanced public key cryptography,” said Apple’s security disclosure.

Now, Apple users will have to decide whether they understand and trust the Find My network and Apple – both as users of it and as iPhone users who participate in it, in order to make them work better.