Why I'm super excited for Apple Tags (AirTags)

Tim Cook
Tim Cook (Image credit: iMore)

Apple's got a whole new Find My app shipping with iOS 13 and macOS Catalina. And, rumor has it, a whole new Find My accessory to go with it, maybe as soon as Apple's iPhone 11 Event this coming Tuesday in Cupertino, California.

I've mentioned this a couple of times already but I really want to stress it again: The upcoming iPhone 11 really seems like it's shaping up to be a next-generation iPhone 7. Even up to and including the event.

Similar overall phone shape but with new silicon on the inside, some new finishes on the outside, an extra camera for even better photos and video, and a breakthrough new accessory with super slick integration.

For the iPhone 7, that was the A10 Fusion, shiny Jet Black aluminum, a second, telephoto camera with optical zoom in and computational portrait mode, and… AirPods.

For the iPhone 11, it'll be the A13 Bionic-er, matte frosted glass, a third, ultra wide-angle camera with optical zoom out and computational smart framing, and… AirTags?

Baking better beacons

Rumors of the new accessory first broke back in April, alongside rumors of the new Find My app, with Gui Rambo of 9to5Mac.

He described it as a tag that could be attached to any item, similar to existing products like Tile. Linked to your iCloud account, you'd be able to attach them to any common item, like your keys, your wallet, your backpack, your bike, maybe even your pets, I'll let you figure out the ethics of your kids or parents — at least for now!

Then, you could see where Finders? Keepers? are using the Find My app, just like you can your iPhone or iPad or Apple Watch, and with macOS Catalina, you're Mac.

But, more, they could alert you if you walked away and accidentally left them behind, unless you whitelisted a location like your home or office where you might want to leave something like your keys or bag behind.

You could also share access to them, for example, if everyone in the office wanted to know where the prototype had gotten to, or everyone in the family wanted to keep tabs on the new puppy.

You could also put them in lost mode, just like an iPhone or other device, and anyone who finds them would be able to contact you and let you know, in addition to you getting alerted if and when they were detected. Privately and securely.

And, it's that part that's really interesting. That's not a rumor but already a reality.

Find My... Everything

Craig Federighi, Apple's senior Vice President of software engineering, talked all about it when he announced the new FindMy app at WWDC 2019 back in June.

And it's clever. Really clever. Especially for devices that don't have always-on internet connections thanks to cellular networking, like the Mac… or, like these rumored tags.

So, you put one on your keys and then, a month or so later, you accidentally leave them behind at a coffee shop you ducked into while running errands. You could retrace your steps, but it was one of a dozen places you went, and you don't have time, so it would be so great if you could just figure out where they are and now.

That's exactly where the new Find My network would kick in.

Basically, any Apple device with offline finding enabled will use Bluetooth low-energy to detect any other potentially lost Apple device within range. Including, we gotta assume, these new tags.

It's a super energy- and data-efficient process. Apple uses things like network coalescence to piggyback off of other activity so any and all extra usage is kept to the barest minimum.

So, for example, when a notification comes in or when someone texts, the location support will fire off at the same time, so the processor and radio aren't being woken up any more than they would be otherwise.

If it detects something, in this case, your keys, it'll use Wi-Fi mapping and cellular triangulation, if available, to anonymously report an approximate location back to Apple.

Both their device and your tags are anonymized, and the report is end-to-end encrypted, so you'll never have any idea who owns the device that pinged your tags, and they'll never know who owns the tags they pinged — or even that they pinged tags if they don't happen to physically see or notice it at the time.

(If they do find them physically, that's where the aforementioned lost mode would come in.)

Then, when you launch the Find My app on any of your devices, you'll see that location report, or the aggregate of as many location reports that have been collected by that time.

Which, thanks to the popularity of Apple devices, should be a good amount. Or a staggering amount in any major metropolitan area.

Crowdsourcing networks like this aren't new, of course. But the privacy and security protections sure are.

Keep them secret, keep them safe

Just last month, Ivan Krstic, Apple's head of security engineering and architecture, returned to Black Hat, in part to detail how the new system was so private and secure.

I'm not even going to try to paraphrase. Here's the abstract:

We will discuss our efficient elliptic curve key diversification system that derives short non-linkable public keys from a user's keypair, and allows users to find their offline devices without divulging sensitive information to Apple.

It's so cool I can't tell if Apple thought up tags as a product and then set about figuring out how to implement it with this level of privacy and security, or if they set about figuring out how to implement Find My for Macs and it turned out so cool they realized there was an opportunity for an entirely new product line, tags, as well.

AirTags... or Apple Tags?

Right after WWDC, when Apple pushed out the first beta of iOS 13, developer Steve Moser found a reference to Tag1,1.

See more

For those not familiar with Apple's naming conventions, iPhone1,1 was the original iPhone. iPad1,1 was the original iPad. 2,1. That's how it goes.

The reference and a glyph depicting what a tag might look like was discovered in an asset package, the kind used for the pairing interfaces already used for AirPods and HomePods, which is how you'd connect the tags to your iCloud account.

More recently, MacRumors got a hold of an internal build of iOS that showed a more realistic rendering of what the tags might look like as well as the new Items tab in the Find My app that they'd show up in.

Find My was already unifying the previous Find My Friends and Find My iPhone apps, so this just takes that to its logical conclusion.

MacRumors also found strings suggesting the batteries will be replaceable, and that there could be a really fun slash useful augmented reality interface for tracking down your items.

Apple is investing huge in ARKit and it's practical applications like this that make those kinds of investments really pay off.

Obviously, the name is still a question, but AirTags or Apple Tags doesn't seem too far off. So is the price. How many will we be able to get and at what cost? Existing products like this are expensive but not too expensive, though a lot will depend on exactly the types of electronics Apple includes in the casing.

Like, with AirPods, the price was never about sound. It was about those dual W1, now H1 chips, the accelerometer, and the rest of the tech inside.

Now, some people are already poo-poo-ing the whole idea of Apple Tags. Preemptively not-a-Nomad laming them, so to speak.

But, I mean, they did the same thing with the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple Watch, even AirPods. And now look who's lame.

This is exactly the kind of accessory, like AirPods, that when done right, with tight integration, and an awesome experience, don't just help make Apple's existing ecosystem more valuable — and sure, they can use all the post iPhone dollars they can get — but help push the technology forward.

AirPods weren't the first Bluetooth earbuds, not by a long shot, not by decades, but look and how many companies are pairing them with their headphone-jack-free phones now, and replicating the entire set up and user experience as best they can.

Apple Tags may or may not end up being as memorable — or meme-able — as AirPods, but I think they have huge potential.

And, either way, I think they'll be an important part of the very iPhone 7-like story we get from Apple about the iPhone 11 next Tuesday.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.