Photo Source: CNBC
Tile’s CEO CJ Prober has been front and center in the recent legal and regulatory battles that surround Apple and others in Big Tech. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he has placed himself front and center in them. Prober testified before a Congressional committee last year and Congress last month, and also joined Tim Sweeney’s lobbying front, the Coalition for App Fairness. At every turn, he’s made it a point to complain about Apple’s privacy changes to iOS in recent years, access to recently added features like the U1 chip, and also Apple’s AirTags going back well before they were even released.
All of this complaining and passive aggressiveness has gotten Prober and his company plenty of media attention, especially in tech circles, but not always the right kind. While they have gained some sympathy, especially from those who are ready to take a hatchet to Big Tech, I see just as many people rolling their eyes at the constant attention seeking. I know I’m an Apple fan, but to be clear, I would find any executive whose company isn’t in a full-on death struggle acting this way to be whining.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way right here and now- Tile isn’t at death’s door by any stretch of the imagination. Not even close. Their revenue was on an upward trend before last year, when many tech companies saw downturns due to a worldwide pandemic. Sales were down 17% in 2020, but that’s not the end of the world compared to what many other industries faced. The fact is, the company still brought in more revenue than they did in 2017 and nearly as much as they did in 2018, so Mr. Prober isn’t fighting off the wolves here.
All that said, a company is entitled to serve its own best interests. I understand that holding onto a share of iPhone users is definitely in Tile’s interests, but there are ways to do that beyond twisting Apple’s arms. More on that in a minute.
For all of their complaining, Tile has access to something that Apple never will- an even larger cross-platform market of Android and Windows devices. I get that hanging onto Apple customers is important, but my point is quite simple. Tile and their CEO is much better served doing exactly what was reported at the end of last week.
For anyone who may have missed the news, Tile has announced a new partnership with Amazon that will greatly expand their network for recognizing lost devices. Piggybacking on Amazon’s Sidewalk communication network courtesy of millions of their Echo devices immediately gets Tile in the same zip code as Apple when it comes to overall reach when searching for lost devices. For all of the company’s bluster when it comes to iOS, the App Store and their restrictions, this deal accomplished far more than any press statement or Congressional testimony ever could.
I understand that Tile may not be playing against Apple on equal turf on iOS and Apple’s other platforms, but that’s nothing new when it comes to any third party competing head-to-head with a first party. One of Tile’s biggest complaints is over Apple’s exclusive access to their new U1 chip for ultra-precise location tracking. The fact is that Apple spent the time and money to develop this hardware feature and integrate it into their Find My device tracking app. In my opinion, neither Tile nor any other company is entitled to access it day one. As things stand today, there is also no legal precedent to force this, either.
As things stand today, Tile is better served building a better mousetrap and pressing the advantages that they have that Apple doesn’t. For evidence of this, just take a look back at a decade of app developers who have adapted their products as Apple incorporated new features into stock iOS apps like Reminders, Mail, Notes and Podcasts. The best apps in these categories are still doing as well or better than before because the developers continued to innovate and offer features that Apple doesn’t. These are all still very popular categories for third party apps for a reason. From my own experience, I still use iOS Notes, but I use third party apps for Calendar, Reminder, Email, and Podcasts and I am FAR from alone.
I’m sure Tile would love to force Apple to give them access to the to the U1 and every detail of the iPhone’s Bluetooth stack, but that isn’t happening without years of legal wrangling, if at all. Maybe Congress or regulators will crack the door for them, but it’s highly doubtful they will get everything they are asking for. The public “woe is me” act CJ Prober has put on may win a few points with regulators or Congress, but the incontrovertible fact is that the company accomplished far more striking a deal with Amazon than trying to sue or complain their way into greater access to Apple’s first party features.
I will leave you with this- if I were an iPhone user who was also heavily invested in the Amazon Echo ecosystem, I would have a legitimate reason to consider using Tile’s products over Apple’s own AirTags. Good luck getting that from a judge, jury, or politician.