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Home automation Personal Computing

Air Tags?

My first tracker experience was disappointing. The tracker chosen failed at all of its use cases. Implementation was so weak that it could not be found in the laundry, a major use case as modern car keys cost way more than trackers.

I had tried an earlier tracker that worked so well it became E-waste at the end of battery life. Basically, the radios weren’t there yet. A tag in the laundry basket could not be found or heard. Discovery of a tag left away from home relied on the general population running the tag app on their phones. Some did but the coverage in Norfolk, Virginia was truly sparse. Oh, and the battery life was about a month. BlueTooth Low Energy was not so low.

But I also watched the Apple announcement with some interest as I had just laundered one radio car key and cleverly hid the other in pants I’ve not worn for a while. The near death experience of the first key increased my interest in finding the second. I also have a couple of sets of Yubi Keys that unlock several important 2FA things. It would be really bad if they both went missing.

References

These articles describe the AirTag and Tile tags and services in some detail. Please give them a read.

  1. https://www.pocket-lint.com/gadgets/news/148358-what-is-tile-how-does-find-with-tile-work-what-devices
  2. https://www.thetileapp.com/en-us/partners
  3. https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2021/04/apple-introduces-airtag/
  4. https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT212227 AirTag finder’s procedure
  5. https://www.thetileapp.com/en-us/google Set up Google Home for Tile
  6. https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2021/05/airtag-review-a-neat-product-at-odds-with-apples-pro-privacy-messaging/

Revisions

  1. 2021-05-10 revised to add the Ars Technica review to the references and mention up front that AirTag is an iOS-only product at present.

How AirTag Differs

AirTag comes into the world many years after BlueTooth tracking devices were developed on top of the BlueTooth Low Energy protocols. What has Apple done to differentiate itself in this market? Would anyone who found the initial offerings wanting consider giving AirTag a go? Did Apple do sufficiently good to erode Tile’s market share?

Note that Tile works in both the Android and iOS universes. AirTag is currently an Apple-only device. Ars Technica [6] has a lengthy review including a walk-down of potential misuse for surveillance of others.

Prior Art

Earlier trackers, such as Tile, rely on users voluntarily loading the Tile app on their phones. When the Tile app locates a tag, it calls home to see if it is missing. If missing, it reports the phone’s position to mother Tile so the Tile owner can be notified directly or indirectly.

There are about 26 million Tile trackers in service. Users make about 6 million Tile recoveries per day. I’m guessing most are fishing their keys out of the laundry or the couch.

Tile tags work with both Android and iOS devices with app versions for each. So they pretty much support the universe of newer mobiles. Apple AirTags work only with iPhones at the moment.

The original Tile tag has a non-replaceable battery. Once the battery gets tired, it is time to buy a new Tile and add it to your account.

Tile has friends

Tile has recruited manufacturers to build Tile tracking into common devices. For example, Sennheiser wireless headphones and HP laptops have Tile tracking built in. Google Home also works with Tile.

To show Tile data in Google Home, follow Tile’s account pairing instructions. This associates the user’s Tile account with their Google account and allows Google to pull info from Tile for display in Home. It appears that Google Home app is not currently a Tile listener and locator.

Apple’s Better Idea

Apple’s idea was to build the AirTag capabilities into iOS using the Apple FindMy app infrastructure and the iOS notification infrastructure. FindMy is part of the standard iOS and MacOS load-out so about every iPhone and every Mac still working (those with BlueTooth Low Energy radios) is an AirTag locator. So the entire iPhone user base is listening for AirTag and a phone finding a lost tag will call home when it finds one. So this gives AirTag about 1 billion sensors out there, many times that of Tile. AirTags should work much better when away from home. Probably Find My iPhone good.

Around home, the two will likely have similar performance finding a tag in the laundry or dropped in or around furniture. Apple ultra-wideband radios may give AirTag an edge doing a quick scan of the laundry basket before loading up the washer or dryer. Clothing does an excellent job of muffling a tag’s beeper.

Android phones with NFC capabilities can report an AirTag that is in lost mode. This is a simple manual operation using the NFC RFID chip built into the AirTag. Android does not use AirTag’s BLE and ultra-wideband capabilites for AirTag reporting.

Peanut Butter in the Chocolate?

Parallel Universes

Much of our older modern technology is simple and interoperable. Imagine a telephone that could only call others served by the same provider. We wouldn’t buy or use such a device yet we continually tolerate a lack of interoperability between iOS and Android to the detriment of both markets. Google does not support Apple protocols but makes versions of important Google products for both iOS and Android. Apple generally ignores Google unless there are royalties to be had.

Open a Worm Hole?

What if all phones could sense all tags? Then tag makers could compete on tag capabilities and functionality. Remember all the Kickstarter tag launches? Where are they now? Only Tile is standing in the US. Apple is reaching for Tile’s rice bowl. Why not make a bigger market and the rice bowl big enough that it will support both company’s products? Right now, Tile is rice bowl guarding. Lots of growling with teeth snapping to come. But those happy with Tile’s service life and performance have no reason to switch products.