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Internet of Things May 2021 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: David Strachan-Olson

Apple's AirTags

Apple's newest product—AirTag—is a tracking device that can help users find missing items. The device's concept is not new, but the tracking technology behind Apple's Find My system, which leverages Apple's massive install base, is revolutionary and could affect the development of future Internet of Things networks.

Description

Apple's AirTag is a small tracking device that enables users to find missing items. Users attach an AirTag to a personal item such as a key ring or a purse. If users lose an item, they can use the Find My app to see the last known location of the missing item. If users are near the missing item, the ultra-wideband technology in the AirTag and in modern iPhones directs them to the item. More impressively, if the missing item is far away from its owner, the AirTag will communicate with nearby Apple devices to report the location of the item back to the original owner's iCloud account. Information sharing via the Find My system is encrypted to protect the location and the identity of all device owners. AirTags use a standard replaceable coin‑cell battery that lasts approximately one year. The new product will compete against similar products from Tile and Chipolo.

The ability of Apple's AirTags to leverage other Apple devices for locating missing items gives these tracking tags a major advantage over competitors' tracking devices. As long as the AirTag is occasionally near another iPhone, iPad, or Mac with "offline finding" enabled, the tag will be able to ping its location to the owner's iCloud account. Apple says that almost 1 billion devices participate in its Find My network.

Implications

AirTags are unlikely to become Apple's next billion-dollar product, but the device and the Find My system are key differentiators for the Apple ecosystem. The Find My system works with other Apple products, including iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Apple is also leveraging this system into a much broader service. Just before the launch of AirTags, Apple announced that third-party companies will have the ability to integrate their devices with the Find My system. Initial third-party devices include electric bicycles from VanMoof, wireless earbuds from Belkin, and tracking tags from Chipolo.

Apple's ability to leverage its install base of devices to create a peer‑based system for locating devices is a significant achievement. Without peer communications, each AirTag would need a cellular radio and a satellite localization system to achieve the same functionality, which would increase price, complexity, and power consumption. Going forward, the approach of leveraging user devices into a mesh‑networking infrastructure for other services could see increased interest from Apple and other companies. Apple is likely to use the core technology of Find My to enable other features and services. Imaginable services include communications with low‑power Internet of Things devices that off‑load data only intermittently, peer‑to-peer messaging, and distributed sensing. As long as Apple can convince users that these features respect users' cellular data connections, privacy, and battery charge, users will likely value these features. Companies that have a poor track record for privacy or a low number of shipped devices may struggle to create a compelling alternative.

Relevant Areas to Monitor

  • Big Tech Power

    Big Tech companies wield immense power through the massive scale of their digital platforms and their ability to centralize and leverage data. Because of their influence, Big Tech companies can create massive disruptions when they enter new markets, and they can dictate pseudo industry standards.

  • Privacy

    Internet of Things devices can generate large amounts of data about individuals and their behaviors, which many companies may try to take advantage of. So far, concerns about privacy have not influenced consumer behavior significantly; however, sentiments could change, and government regulations could force companies to respect privacy.

Impact Scale

On a scale of low, medium, or high, the anticipated level of impact for this topic is: Medium to High.

Impact Timing

On a scale of now, 5, 10, or 15 years, the anticipated impact timing for this topic is: Now to 5 years.

Opportunities in the Following Industry Areas

  • Cybersecurity
  • Information/Telecommunications
  • Infrastructure/Utility
  • Internet of Things
  • Sensors/Electronics