Amazon and Tile Partner to Challenge Apple’s AirTag

image credit: Amazon

published by Chad Evans
May 11, 2021 at 1:08 p.m.
  • Apple’s new AirTag smart tracker affixes to frequently lost items, making them easier to find.
  • With over a billion Apple devices, the vast, expansive FindMy network enables AirTags to locate items quickly.
  • To challenge Apple’s new tracking tag, Amazon forged a partnership with Tile, provide access to its Sidewalk mesh network.
  • Amazon Sidewalk is a shared network composed of multiple devices combining to blanket neighborhoods with free, ubiquitous, and secure Internet connectivity.

AirTag: Apple’s Tile Rival

Not so long ago, when people lost items such as keys, remotes, or wallets, they spent hours, or even days, searching. If you happened to lose your wallet outside your home, most would write it off as gone forever.

Although tracking technology is nothing new, the lack of a widespread network imposed limitations. Perhaps law enforcement agencies or private detectives could marshall limited resources, but they were unavailable to the average person. Even with their James Bond-like technology, these tracking systems fell short. Surveillance required being near the subject as transmitters could only broadcast finite distances.

Tile was one of the first item tracking tags appearing on the market. Its first version employed Bluetooth to locate Tile-affixed items; however, this only worked over ranges of up to 300 feet. Later models used the Tile app on others’ devices to locate any Tile item and anonymously report its location to the owner. With rapid adoption, Tile’s network grew, making it possible to find things lost in faraway places.

For some time, Tile enjoyed the fruits of its labor. The company sold over 26 million tracking tags, vastly expanding its crowd-sourced Bluetooth network. Everything was going well until iOS 14 changes popped up privacy warnings about Tile and other apps. Apple’s messaging persuaded some to disable location settings for the Tile app, weakening its crowd-sourced network in the process.

Apple altered iOS 14 location behavior reportedly to enhance end-user privacy. The company informed the world that they were stopping other disingenuous corporations from tracking their location. Concurrently, the Cupertino tech giant was developing a rival to Tile — the soon-to-be-released AirTag.

While it’s true that alerting people about location tracking is generally a good thing, it also had the effect of diminishing Tile’s network. Some users perceived the once-beloved tag as an intrusive force and opted out of location tracking. By doing so, their Tile app would no longer broadcast locations of other nearby Tile tags, undermining crowd-based surveillance.

Users can’t opt out of iOS’s ability to track foreign AirTags without leaving the entire FindMy network, leaving their Apple devices vulnerable to misplacement and loss. Unlike Tile, Apple doesn’t pop up messages informing users of location surveillance. Although iOS 14 privacy changes appear to protect consumers, Apple may also be leveraging these in an anti-competitive manner. Regardless of intentions, the outcome is that Apple is essentially stealing Tile’s business.

Amazon Partners with Tile to Expand Network

Tile is an original and effective product; however, Apple’s encroachment could limit its usefulness. To counter Apple’s hegemony and sell more Echo devices, Amazon announced an upcoming partnership with Tile and smart lock manufacturer Level to use its Sidewalk network.

Amazon’s Sidewalk network employs Bluetooth to provide Internet access for smart devices. Using its legion of Echo devices in homes across the world, Sidewalk bridges these gadgets to share a small fraction of their WiFi bandwidth. The amount of redistributed data is small and has no impact on WiFi performance. The secure network, if successful, could blanket much of the world.

Adding Tile to the Sidewalk network is a massive advantage. Right now, educated consumers may prefer Apple’s AirTag to Tile, as the FindMy network is large and expansive. Tile tags, which cost significantly less than Apple’s AirTag, will soon have access to a growing network that may soon cover much of the globe. This, combined with the Tile app, makes it easier to find items lost in distant or random places.

Amazon’s partnership with Tile and Level officially begins on June 14, 2021. The addition of Level smart locks serves to expand the Sidewalk network, providing even more benefits to Tile customers.

Tile Fights Apple in Congress, Courts

A growing movement composed of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, tech companies, and consumer advocates alleges Apple’s business practices thwart competition. The example of manipulating Tile users to opt out of its crowd network is just one example. The company stands accused of undermining tech corporations by charging exorbitant fees, stealing product ideas (“Sherlocking”), and locking users into an exclusive App Store.

The day after Apple unveiled AirTags, Tile’s general counsel, Kirsten Daru, testified in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee about the Cupertino company’s monopolistic practices. Tile’s case is clear. Apple “Sherlocked” their device, which they’ve done numerous times to other small tech companies.

Apple’s case has some merit; however, other tech ecosystems haven’t applied the same practices. The Cupertino tech giant alleges that the App Store helped grow Tile’s business. The Tile tag, however, is not distributed in the App Store. Apple only distributes its free, accompanying app, which generates no revenues.

Apple’s claim seems illogical. Do end-users really stumble on the Tile app first, then opt to purchase the popular tracking device? While it’s possible, it’s more likely that people discovered Tile from the company’s marketing efforts, not by randomly digging through apps in an overcrowded App Store.

It’s a chicken and egg argument. With Apple controlling App Store data, it won’t be easy to prove which came first — consumers’ discovery of the Tile tag or its accompanying app. It seems farfetched, and there’s little data to prove Apple’s claim of promoting Tile within the App Store.

That’s the problem with these court cases and Congressional inquiries. They often rely more on rhetoric than reality and data. Apple’s story is that the App Store helps third-party developers flourish. There’s a lot of truth to this; however, a handful of apps account for 95% of App Store revenues. For the most part, large, established tech firms create these lucrative apps, leaving independent developers in the lurch. Most app-makers must market their software, as two million other titles obscure their presence in the App Store.

Anti-trust movements can often produce change; however, the last significant action, breaking up AT&T, occurred forty years ago. The cozy relationship between corporations and lawmakers has much to do with the lack of will to combat monopolistic tendencies.

Tile Can Use the FindMy Network

Third-party developers can take advantage of the FindMy network. Apple opened up FindMy to outside tech providers with the iOS 14 release. Unfortunately, a tracking device must use ultra-wideband technology. Tile currently uses Bluetooth alone, while Apple’s AirTag uses both Bluetooth and ultra-wideband wireless technologies.

Tile can take advantage of ultra-wideband tech in upcoming models. This, combined with Amazon’s Sidewalk network, would greatly expand the size of Tile’s crowd-based community. In fact, if Tile embraces ultra-wideband, it will be a better product than Apple’s AirTag.

Even if Tile becomes a better product than the AirTag, most will opt for the Apple product. Apple doesn’t make the best smartphone; however, it’s one of the best-selling devices on the planet. Positioned alongside the iPhone, AirTags will likely dominate the market, regardless of cheaper and better options.

Amazon may take a greater interest in the product, which could boost adoption. Amazon may be courting Tile with its partnership. Acquiring Tile makes a lot of sense for the Seattle tech giant.

Will Amazon Purchase Tile?

Amazon’s partnership with Tile may indicate plans to acquire the company. After all, with Tile neatly integrated into the Sidewalk network, notably due to Tile’s effort and expense, the company is a perfect fit with Amazon’s offerings.

Beyond item tracking for consumers, Tile could offer Amazon an easier way to track high-end items, perhaps to reduce rampant package theft. Amazon is a tech, logistics, and retail firm, all in one. 

It’s possible its latest move integrating Tile into the Sidewalk network may signal Amazon’s desire to acquire the company. Such a move would likely see Tile tags, already less expensive than AirTags, priced below cost. By partnering with Tile, Amazon can test the benefits of acquiring the company without pulling the trigger.

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