It’s no secret that Apple has grown from a plucky, IBM-baiting upstart into a corporate monolith able to throw its weight around. With that size comes scrutiny, and the accusations of unhealthy market dominance have become relentless in the past few years.
Epic Games are merely the most prominent in a parade of partners claiming Apple exercises too much control over its platforms. And national regulators around the world have investigated the company for
cartel behaviour and assorted
Which made it all the stranger to witness, over the course of a fortnight, Apple seemingly bending over backwards to give third-party manufacturers a head start over its own product.
On 7 April Apple
announced that third-party products and object trackers would be integrated into its Find My app (which will get a new Items tab as of the iOS 14.5 software update). Grab a set of
Belkin headphones, a
VanMoof e-bike, or a
Chipolo item finder, and you’ll soon be able to track it easily and accurately in the Find My app on your iPhone.
But at the time there was no mention of the
AirTag, Apple’s own object tracker, whose development and imminent launch have been rumoured for years. Most of us assumed the Items tab was added for the AirTag’s benefit; but the product’s absence from the announcement made it feel like something had gone wrong. Maybe it had entered Development Hell. Maybe it was pulling an AirPower.
As it turns out, the AirTags were alive and well, as the tracker was unveiled at Apple’s Spring Loaded event on 20 April, 13 days after the company set the stage for its expanded Find My ecosystem. (Here’s
where you can buy one.) But you wouldn’t have guessed it was coming from the 7 April press release, when Apple played up Find My items as a tool for third-party devices, including a Bluetooth tracker that looks a lot like the AirTag.
In some ways this timeline makes a sort of sense: by outlining the basics of the ecosystem and explaining how the Items tab works ahead of time, Apple had less ground to cover in the event – which was always going to be packed, with the iPad Pro, iMac and Apple TV to discuss as well. But as my colleagues have pointed out, Apple did find time to talk about well-worn features such as Universal Clipboard and Handoff as if they were new. Apple probably could have squeezed in two extra minutes on Find My’s third-party integration.
A helping hand
The logical way for Apple to handle the Find My expansion and the AirTags launches was a simultaneous announcement. It makes little sense to create the itch for integrated trackable devices and then fail to deliver the soothing AirTag lotion we were all waiting for until 13 days later.
In retrospect, it reads like an oddly and uncharacteristically generous way of behaving. Instead of being lost in the excitement of a new Apple product (third-party integration would have been reduced to “…and of course there are also some third-party options that we’ll show on screen for 15 seconds…”), Chipolo had a couple of glorious weeks in the limelight, seemingly the only object tracker compatible with the Find my app. I bet the company gained some much needed attention, though unfortunately its tracker isn’t actually on sale yet.
Are these the actions of an unhealthily dominant, position-exploiting monopolist? Or is Apple merely playing a game to seem like it’s being generous?
Reasons to be kind
Apple doesn’t normally do this sort of thing. Some of the anti-competition accusations against the company may be unfair, but I think it’s absolutely fair to say that Apple has historically liked to give its own products a foot up – when it made its own iPhone apps the mandatory default for years, for example, or when it
cleared out third-party speakers and headphones from its store ahead of the launch of the HomePod mini and AirPods Max.
So what’s different this time? Maybe Apple is playing PR in response to months and years of bad publicity: just as when the company relented on default apps, or allowed appeals against App Store decisions, it could be consciously trying to nurture an image as a company that listens rather than dictates, while giving itself some positive material to point to in current and future lawsuits.
Equally, there could be a legal or contractual issue we don’t know about. Regulatory clearance sometimes dictates the timing of public disclosures, or it’s possible that one of the major players tapped up to join the ecosystem dug in its heels and demanded a few days’ grace – although at first glance none of those firms seem large enough to wield that much leverage.
Or maybe Apple recognises that a competitive marketplace is a healthy marketplace, and that everyone benefits if third-party manufacturers are thriving. And that it makes money either way.
Tile be back
But amid all this praise let’s spare a thought for
Tile, the de-facto leader of the object tracker market and a conspicuous absence from the Find My announcement.
Tile is now in an invidious position, with an 800-pound gorilla threatening to eat its lunch and no compensatory access to the Find My ecosystem. Who knows what discussions took place in smoke-filled rooms, or who rejected whom, but one would imagine Apple would have let the company and its massively popular products join its platform if it weren’t for all the
accusations of anti-competitive behaviour.
Tile, which is today testifying against Apple in anti-competition hearings, sent out a statement yesterday in response to the AirTags launch.
“We welcome competition,” said the firm’s CEO, CJ Prober, “as long as it is fair competition. Unfortunately, given Apple’s well-documented history of using its platform advantage to unfairly limit competition for its products, we’re sceptical.
“And given our prior history with Apple, we think it is entirely appropriate for Congress to take a closer look at Apple’s business practices specific to its entry into this category. We welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further in front of Congress [today].”
I own (and like) several Tile trackers, but – assuming Congress doesn’t force Apple to shutter its AirTags operation – it’s hard to see where the company goes from here.
Tile’s products have to be tracked in its own app, and the actual location sensing (outside of Bluetooth range) relies on other devices nearby also using the app. A setup like that doesn’t stand a chance against AirTag, which only needs an iPhone or iPad nearby and should therefore be far more reliable and accurate, and can be tracked alongside a bunch of other things in the Find My app. Plus Apple’s AirTag pricing is pretty aggressive and in line with Tile’s offerings.
So yes, Apple gave a few relatively small rival companies 13 days of access to early adopters to the seeming disadvantage of its own product, and staggered two extremely related announcements in a way that makes little sense from the outside. But the way Tile has been caught up in all this – with the caveat that it may have simply refused to sign up – makes me think it might be slightly early to print out the APPLE LOVES COMPETITION banner.
*This pun courtesy of Martyn Casserly. Please direct complaints to him.