Tile decided to take its beef with Apple mainstream last week, testifying before a U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee in Colorado on Friday. Their argument is based on the facts that Apple removed Tile’s products from Apple Retail Stores, added limitations and and mandatory reminders to apps that use Location Services in iOS 13 and that Apple doesn’t allow them access to the new Ultra Wide Band chip in the latest iPhones. They also claim that Apple’s FindMy app is a knockoff of their own product.
I won’t say that Title has no ground to complain. I’m sure Apple removing their products from stores was a setback. Also, it can be a pain to have to regularly re-enable Location Services for certain apps that you actually do want to be able to track you. I get that. However, this all still feels very, very overdone to me. Here’s why.
First off, forget Apple removing Tile products from Apple Retail stores. Whatever their reasons, they have the right to do this. That claim sounds good on TV, but it really doesn’t do them any good.
Second, I have experienced what Tile is complaining about with iOS 13 firsthand. I tapped the wrong option at some point this Summer during the beta period and disabled Location Services for the Hilton app. Unfortunately, this meant that I couldn’t use the Digital Key feature, which I am a fan of, for a couple of months. I thought the functionality was just broken because of the iOS 13 Beta, but when I had the same problem after the new OS went to gold master, I knew something else was up. I remembered the changes to iOS 13, went to Settings-Privacy-Location Services, turned the Hilton app back on and got it working again.
So this will be a legitimate issue for some users. However, before iOS 13, I had absolutely no clue how many apps were using Bluetooth in one way or another to track me. I would rather go through the annoyance of having to be prompted to keep Location Services on for programs like the Hilton app or Tile’s app and keep these rouge apps at bay than to go back to the previous way of doing things. I appreciate Apple’s stance on privacy and its work to close loopholes in iOS.
At this point, I’m going to reference Apple’s response to Tile’s testimony:
“Apple builds its hardware, software and system level apps to protect user privacy and provide the best products and ecosystem in the world. Apple has not built a business model around knowing a customer’s location or the location of their device.
When setting up a new device users can choose to turn on Location Services to help find a lost or misplaced device with Find My iPhone, an app that users have come to rely on since 2010. Customers have control over their location data, including the location of their device. If user’s don’t want to enable these features, there’s a clear, easy to understand setting where they can choose exactly which locations services they want enabled or disabled.
In regard to third-party apps, we created the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. We continually work with developers and take their feedback on how to help protect user privacy while also providing the tools developers need to make the best app experiences.
We’re currently working with developers interested in enabling the “Always Allow” functionality to enable that feature at the time of setup in a future software update.”
Check that last bit. Apple will have to make good on this claim, but it looks like they are going to give the good guys in the App Store who aren’t abusing their pet cause of user data privacy to be able to set Location Services back to Always On again. That would check another argument off the list.
In my opinion, Tile’s complaints about Apple’s FindMy app are also empty when viewed in context. Why? Because Apple released the original Find My iPhone app on iOS in 2011, two years before the original crowdfunded Tile came out in 2013. If anything, Tile started by taking a built-in feature of the iPhone and elaborating on it. The distinction has always been that Tiles can be added to other devices that aren’t phones or other Apple products for searching in the same manner, which sets them apart.
And that gets to the heart of the matter. The issue isn’t really with Apple’s FindMy app. It’s the fact that Apple may be bringing out a competing product in he very near future. However, until they actually do, there is nothing Tile can do about it. A pre-emptive strike may be effective in war, but it isn’t going to work in a legal/government proceeding.
Tile’s last argument has to do with one of Apple’s newest features: UWB support. The Ultra Wide Band chip inside of the new iPhone Pros is there to provide support for much more accurate positioning location, especially for indoor mapping. At this point, Apple has not yet opened up access to these features to third party developers, so Tile does have a point here, at least for now.
I say that because this isn’t the first time that Apple has limited access to a new feature right out of the gate. Bluetooth has been on the iPhone since day one, but devs didn’t get the ability to integrate apps directly to Bluetooth devices until years later. Remember when we had to use a web app for Google Voice before Apple opened up access to the phone features of the iPhone? Remember when iCloud Keychain was part of iOS, but third party password managers couldn’t integrate directly to it like they can today? Likewise, NFC was in the iPhone for a couple of years before access was opened up more recently.
None of this is definitive proof that Apple will open up access to the UWB chip, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if they did. At this point, there is more evidence to suggest that they will than they won’t. As such, it’s best to not jump to conclusions about Apple’s plans along with Tile just yet.
So now we get back to the heart of the matter. What Tile is really worried about is Apple bringing out a competing product that kneecaps theirs, at least on iOS. When and if Apple does (and they likely will later this year), Tile will have a much better argument that their standing is jeopardized. A new Apple AirTag tracker combined with Apple removing Tile products from Apple Retail stores wouldn’t be a great look. However, whether or not that rises to the level of being anti-competitive is for the courts to decide. But until Apple does take that step, Tile’s case is all sizzle and very little steak.