What Is Apple Up To With Its New AirTags?

One of the early highlights of Apple’s Spring Loaded event was the unveiling of the heavily-leaked AirTag, an item tracker now part of Apple’s popular “Find My” network. Though Apple has a long legacy of incredible secrecy when it comes to its unannounced products, rumors have swirled around AirTag’s development since 2019. Let’s take a look at the latest from Apple.

AirTags, priced affordably at $29 for one and $99 for a four pack, are not breaking new technology ground. Similar solutions have been on the market for years, most notably Tile, launched in late 2015. Similar to Tile, absent-minded people can affix AirTags to any physical item they’re prone to losing, and track its location using the Find My app. Wisely, Apple designed AirTags with a user-replaceable battery that lasts about a year.

Compatible with iPhones, iPads, Apple Watch, Mac desktops and laptops, AirPods and now AirTag, the Find My service has proven to be popular, convenient and easy to use. After locating your lost item on the app, you can even make your device play a sound to help pinpoint its location. It’s a helpful feature and a small incentive for consumers to stay put in the vaunted Apple ecosystem. It doesn’t hurt that it takes advantage of consumers’ fear of losing their pricey Apple-branded devices. 

With AirTags, Apple has now effectively expanded its Find My network to cover millions (if not billions of) of physical items, like luggage, golf bags, key sets, etc. AirTags utilize UWB (Ultra-Wideband) technology, which allows the tags to accurately track GPS data in real time while still drawing very low power. Apple dubs this ability “Precision Finding,” as it pinpoints exact location, even incorporating haptic feedback.

The pairing process of AirTags presumably will be comparable to any other Apple-branded solution. The user simply brings a new AirTag next to their iOS device, initiating the pairing process and adding the item to their iCloud account. Apple envisions that consumers will want to add multiple tags simultaneously, so it gave users the ability to pair AirTags in groups to save time.

Concerns

A few issues came to my mind while evaluating Apple’s decision to delve into tracking non-Apple branded devices. One immediate area of concern is privacy. For example, stalkers could have a field day by attaching AirTags to other people’s items. To assuage these concerns, AirTags include a privacy protection feature that alerts you if one of the AirTag-attached items/devices you’ve been carrying is not authorized. Additionally, location data is only sent to Apple when the user actively locates their device, marks it as lost, or activates “Send Last Location.” Like with other Apple products, data is encrypted to Apple’s servers and stored for no more than 24 hours.

Secondly, while the AirTag may be convenient for locating physical items like keychains, luggage or other items you’re more likely to lose than have stolen, it is less useful in other cases. I wouldn’t attach it to any non-Apple electronic devices, since the tag can easily be physically removed and Find My doesn’t provide the ability to wipe data, lock or freeze non-Apple laptops, smartphones or tablets. In this regard, there are alternate solutions for Windows/Mac laptops on the market, such as Absolute Software’s Home & Office Theft Protection service, which provides the ability to find, remotely lock and delete files. Often bundled with leading PC OEMs like HP and others, Absolute’s software cannot be deleted by a thief as it is embedded in the device’s firmware.

Some closing thoughts

While Apple’s Spring Loaded event certainly did not rock the technology Richter scale, the company did announce several meaningful refreshes of the iMac and iPad Pro, which are now outfitted with Apple’s new M1 (Apple Silicon) processors. Also announced was a new enhanced Apple TV 4K with higher resolution, faster performance (handy for Apple Arcade-based gaming) and a new Siri Remote.

For me, the most intriguing story from the event was Apple’s strategic decision to expand its Find My network beyond its branded family of devices. It was no coincidence that just last week Apple announced it was aggressively expanding its Developing for Find My program to allow non-Apple manufacturers to access the technical specifications and resources needed to connect an existing or new accessory to the Find My network. The market for these non-Apple branded products is enormous (measuring in the hundreds of millions). If Apple sells just 40 million AirTags (certainly not a long shot given that the Find My app is preinstalled on 1 billion Apple devices), this could be a billion dollar business for the company. Not too shabby.