Tile, Apple AirTags, and antitrust allegations, briefly explained

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On Tuesday, Apple announced the release of AirTag, a small, electronic tracker people can attach to keys, a piece of luggage, or anything, really, and then use Apple’s Find My system to find that item. For Apple fans, it’s another handy product. But for Tile, the maker of a similar tracker, the long-awaited announcement is another sign of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior.

Tile is once again encouraging Congress to take a closer look at Apple ahead of a Senate antitrust hearing, where Tile’s general counsel, Kirsten Daru, will testify alongside executives from Spotify, Match, Google, and Apple. The hearing comes as Apple has repeatedly been accused of anti-competitive behavior due to its requirement for all iOS apps to be distributed through Apple’s App Store, where Apple takes a commission for sales.

But in the case of the new AirTags, the criticism goes further. Tile says that Apple is not only creating hardware that’s similar to its own, but is also designing Apple software in a way that favors its own products and disadvantages Tile’s products.

“We welcome competition, as long as it is fair competition,” said CJ Prober, Tile’s chief executive officer, in a statement soon after Apple’s AirTag announcement. “Unfortunately, given Apple’s well-documented history of using its platform advantage to unfairly limit competition for its products, we’re skeptical.”

Apple AirTags, which go on sale at the end of April, do what Tile’s products have done for a while: keep track of things. The new trackers use Bluetooth technology to locate these lost items. AirTags also feature the U1 chip, which uses ultra wideband technology for more precise object location. This approach — and even the physical design of the trackers — is very similar to what Tile’s been doing for years. Tile also uses Bluetooth to locate objects, and the company is in the midst of launching ultra wideband capabilities (along with an augmented reality feature) on its trackers.

One big difference between the new AirTags and Tile trackers: Tile relies on Apple to keep its location-tracking tools running smoothly in the Apple App Store and iOS, but not the other way around. Tile has long argued that Apple unfairly designed its mobile operating system, iOS, and the Find My app to favor its own location-tracking tools. Tile did not respond to Recode’s request for comment ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.

Apple, for its part, has pushed back against this criticism.

“Apple created Find My over a decade ago to help users locate and manage lost devices in a private and secure way,” the company told Recode in a statement. “We have always embraced competition as the best way to drive great experiences for our customers, and we have worked hard to build a platform in iOS that enables third-party developers to thrive.”

The standoff between Apple and Tile has been years in the making. Rumors emerged back in 2019 that Apple was working on a tracker system that would compete with Tile’s products. Daru, Tile’s general counsel, told Congress last January that Apple was making it harder for users to connect their iPhone to Tile devices by requiring permissions in iOS 13.5 that were buried in settings, and prompting users to turn off those permissions after the devices had been set up. Daru also claimed that Apple’s Find My app competed with Tile’s own app. Tile sent a letter to European authorities accusing Apple of anti-competitive behavior, saying that iOS 13.5 was built to favor Apple’s Find My app over Tile’s app, among other complaints. Apple “strenuously” denied the allegations.

Following the volley of lawyer letters, Apple announced last summer that it would be launching a new program that would enable third-party trackers to work with its Find My app. But it wasn’t until early April of this year — two weeks ahead of the AirTags launch — that Apple finally updated the Find My app to allow it to work with third-party devices.

It’s not clear how lawmakers or regulators will react to this update. The argument that Apple unfairly nudges users toward the Find My system over Tile’s system has gotten traction in Congress in the past, however. An expansive House antitrust report from last October claimed that “Apple’s service would require companies like Tile to abandon their apps and the ability to differentiate their service from Apple’s and other competitors” and put companies like Tile “at a competitive disadvantage.”

In advance of Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar called Apple’s announcement of AirTags “timely,” telling Reuters that “this is the type of conduct that we’ll be talking about at the hearing.”

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