In this week’s “Preview of Apple’s September Event,” I described a number of obvious releases (new iPhones, iOS 13, macOS Catalina) that should be announced at the event, as well as several long shots like a redesigned iMac. One item was off my radar completely, but the evidence is showing that it may make a debut at the event — “Apple Tags.”
What’s an “Apple Tag?”
Right off the bat, let’s get it straight. “Apple Tag” might not be the name of this product. Knowing Apple’s odd guidelines for product naming, it could also be iTag, AirTag, or perhaps just “tag.”
If you’ve ever used or seen a Tile tracker (see image above), it is the type of product I’m talking about. It’s a small or thin Bluetooth tracking device that can be attached to or place into something that you don’t want to lose, like a wallet or backpack. It uses an internal battery to power the tracking capability for about a year and works with a smartphone app that can be used to find the distance to the tracker or make the tracker beep.
What Makes Me Think Apple Will Unveil Apple Tags?
Unlike some of my conjectures, there’s some pretty good evidence for the existence of Apple Tags. First, we know that iOS 13 and iPadOS 13 will be outfitted with a new Find My app. This app combines both Find My Friends and Find My iPhone/iPad/Mac/AirPods. So why not add the ability to find Apple Tags as well?
Developer and 9to5Mac contributor Guilherme Rambo first mentioned the possibility of both the new Find My app and tags back in April 2019. At WWDC 2019 in June, iOS 13 beta 1 was released and almost immediately another developer, Steve Moser, found a reference to an Apple device named “Tag1,1.”
This is in line with Apple product naming conventions; for example, the first iPhone was iPhone1,1. Things are getting a bit more solid, with MacRumors posting an image (see below) of a circular tag with an Apple logo in the center.
MacRumors also notes that the tags are codenamed “B389” at Apple, and strings found in
There’s even evidence pointing to the existence of a 3D red balloon and a 2D orange balloon that could be used with a new augmented reality (AR) feature. Have you lost something? Raise your iPhone while running the Find My app and see a view of a room or a place, with a balloon floating over the location where your Apple Tag — and lost item — is.
Other strings found in Apple code point to a replaceable battery in an Apple Tag – MacRumors cites one code fragment that states “Unscrew the back of the item and remove the battery.”
What’s Wrong With Most Existing Bluetooth Trackers
Now, what’s wrong with a Bluetooth tracking device? By design, Bluetooth has a range of about 10 meters (33 feet). If you’re more than 10 meters away from a tracking device, one of two things happens:
- You get a notification from the app that you’ve walked away from the tracker… provided that you set it up to give you those notifications. Many people turn them off because it can be annoying to walk into another room and have your phone start beeping and buzzing.
- You just lose track of the device and have no idea where it is until you wander within 10 meters of it by sheer luck.
Tile and some of the other tracking device developers came up with an idea on how to find things that are more than 10 meters away: having a large number of people with their app on their smartphones, so if you’re not within Bluetooth range, somebody else might be.
If that person’s smartphone detects your tracking tag, it anonymously passes the GPS location of that tag to a cloud service. You can then use your app to find out that you dropped your wallet at the movie theater last night…
Now, I don’t know how many different Bluetooth tracker developers there are, each with their own app. Likewise, we don’t know how many Bluetooth trackers have been sold, but it’s probably in the tens of millions. When your tag and whatever it’s attached to are lost, you’d just better hope that someone running the same app as you happens to walk by your tag.
There’s one more problem with Bluetooth trackers; they run on battery power. If you forget to replace the battery once a year or so, the device is essentially nothing more than a piece of plastic and circuitry. Sure, most apps are supposed to warn you if the battery gets below a certain point, but many of the tags I’ve tested fail to given a warning.
How Apple Could Disrupt The Bluetooth Tracker Market
Apple has a tendency to disrupt markets not by being the first entrant into an area, but by being the best entrant. The company could definitely disrupt the Bluetooth Tracker market in several ways.
- To find an existing tracker, you or another person need to be running the developer’s proprietary app. I’ve already pointed out that there are a lot of different trackers on the market and the chances that someone running your tracker’s app on their smartphone
arerather slim. With an Apple Tag, there would be literally over a billion devices capable of anonymously passing along the location of a tag — any iPhone running the Find My app!
- Apple’s manufacturing prowess could make the Apple
Tag lessexpensive than competing trackers, although that’s not “the Apple way”. In quantities of 8, Tile’s Mate tracker runs $13.75 per unit. Apple could probably price an Apple Tag at $20 per unit, and with its marketing smarts, they could sell a lot of tags.
- While everything points to a Bluetooth tracker with a replaceable battery, Apple could really disrupt the market with an RFID-based Apple Tag. RFID (radio frequency identification) uses a passive tag that doesn’t require a battery. Unfortunately, RFID readers have a range of only about 10 feet, although those equipped with special antennae can get a response from items as far as 600 feet away. This assumes that iPhones and iPads can read RFID tags…
- Better battery life. If Apple does create a tracking tag of some sort, perhaps its engineering skills can make it work for two or more years off of a single CR2032 or CR1632 battery. Personally, I’d like to see Apple also include prepaid mailers with a device for returning used batteries for disposal or recycling.
Whether or not Apple does release Apple Tags of some sort or another at the September 10 event, it appears that the company is heading in that direction. Expect to hear an announcement of Apple-branded tracking tags at the event or at a separate event later in the year.