When Apple spends time to talk up a new technology that it’s excited about, you can bet people pay attention. So last fall, when the company rolled out its new iPhones, featuring a custom-designed Apple chip, the U1, ears perked up throughout the tech industry.
Spending the time and energy to design and build a specific chip confers immediate importance on ultra wideband, elevating it to the level of other endeavors that have become central to Apple products, such as the M-series motion coprocessors and H-series headphone chips.
And yet, since that initial announcement, Apple has been largely mum about the applications of ultra wideband or the U1 chip. Has the company dialed back on its aspirations, or is there more up its sleeves?
Getting the wideband back together
Ultra wideband is a low-power, short-range, and high-bandwidth radio communication standard, and one of its key features is a “time-of-flight” capability, which allows it to precisely measure distance from other ultra wideband transceivers by checking how long it takes a radio signal to go back and forth.
On the specs page for the iPhone 11 series, Apple describes ultra wideband as a technology for “spatial awareness.” Right now, the only stated feature for the U1 chip is as part of AirDrop in the iPhone 11 series: if you choose to share a file and there are other iPhones nearby that also have the U1 chip, those people will be prioritized in the Share sheet.
More recently, uncovered code in iOS betas has found hints of a Car Key system that would allow you to use your iPhone to open and start your car. This feature can also use NFC, which is built into most modern iPhones as well as the Apple Watch, but using ultra wideband would potentially provide better security, as that same time-of-flight feature makes it more difficult to intercept and rebroadcast a signal.
But if Apple’s invested all this effort into ultra wideband, there must be more at stake than improving AirDrop or even appealing to those few who might own a compatible car. It needs something much more—if you’ll pardon the expression—widely applicable.
Search and ye shall find
Most of the speculation around ultra wideband and the U1 has related to the yet-to-be-announced AirTags, the tracking fobs that Apple has been developing. While the fobs will reportedly work via Bluetooth LE, the addition of ultra wideband would provide a much higher degree of location precision. Think of it as sort of a “last foot” technology that could be folded into the Find My system Apple already offers.
For example, Find My can currently tell you that your missing device is in your home, or perhaps that you left it in a coffeeshop, but it can’t operate at the necessary degree of precision to tell you where within your home or the cafe the device is. Thanks to that time-of-flight feature, the U1 will be able to essentially tell you when you’re getting closer or farther away from an AirTag, turning finding your missing object into more of a “hot or cold” exercise.
Combined with the other AirTag features that allow it to talk to nearby Apple devices (the same functionality that Apple and Google are using in their upcoming COVID-19 contact tracing feature), ultra wideband stands to make AirTags considerably more powerful and useful than competing devices. And if it sells more AirTags and more phones with the U1 chip, then we start to have a good idea of why Apple’s so bullish on the technology.
Still can’t find what it’s looking for
And yet, there remains a mystery over Apple’s two most recent products: the 2020 iPad Pro series, and the new iPhone SE. Notably, neither of those devices contain a U1 chip. In the case of the SE, that was immediately clear from a look at Apple’s iPhone specs comparison page; Apple didn’t specifically list a U1 chip in the specs for the iPad Pros, and it’s been confirmed that they don’t contain one.
If the U1 chip were as important to the future of Apple’s line-up as many have speculated, surely the company would want to built it in across as many products as possible—especially in the case of products like the iPhone SE and the iPad Pro, both of which are likely to last their owners several years. So why did the company choose not to?
Two primary theories come immediately to mind: cost and utility. The iPhone SE is intended to sit at the low end of Apple’s phone lineup, and one way Apple can afford to keep it at that price is by cutting components that may be less critical. Given the slow roll out of ultra wideband features, the company may have simply decided that additional cost wasn’t worth the return most customers would get. Or, if you choose to be more cynical, you could argue that it provided a differentiator for Apple’s more expensive phones, giving the company an opportunity to upsell.
On the utility side, it also seems likely that the use cases Apple envisions for the U1 chip just aren’t as essential on a device like the iPad—since most people probably don’t carry their iPad on-hand everywhere they go, they’re not going to use it as a car key, for example. Not every technology that the company builds into one of its products ends up in the other: 3D Touch never made it to the iPad, nor did Apple Pay. And the iPhone still doesn’t offer Pencil support.
But as Apple does roll out new features that take advantage of ultra wideband, it’s certainly not out of the question that the U1 chip could find its way into other devices down the road. It just seems that those days may be further away than anticipated.
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