Apple launched a purple iPhone, upgraded iPads, and even a fully-refreshed iMac, but what captured my interest was the Airtags.
What are Airtags, and why do you need them?
Those who know me are aware I am great at losing things. I am also forgetful, which further accentuates my genius at ending up with fewer items than I started. Anybody who creates a tool that can help me find things gets my interest. Of course, if anybody can make me not lost them in the first place – you have my attention!
I am therefore thrilled Apple introduced Airtags. Airtags are (outrageously priced of course!) little buttons you attach to anything you don’t want to lose (your keys, bags, wallets). In the eventuality of losing the said item, you pull out your iPhone, and voila – it shows you a little map with the coordinates. And when you are close enough, the device emits a sound to help you further.
A few months ago, I had lost my Airpods on a wide street at dusk. Apple’s Find my Phone feature helped me track them – you can find the story here. There is one challenge that isn’t directly addressed in the “Find my Airpod” solution. The Airpod does not have a GPS chip, and Bluetooth works only for a limited range (say 30 feet). The iPhone’s GPS determines when it was last paired to the device and uses that as its location. If someone moved it later – it wouldn’t be there. But it solved most of the non-malicious problems, and the solution was a hit.
Here’s the thing – The Airtags are small too – and priced even lower than an Airpod.
So how did they get over this challenge?
It turns out they were using a new set of technologies this time – Ultra Wide Band and crowdsourcing – in a very innovative way. So let’s explore these, shall we?
Ultra-Wide Band is a communications protocol (like wifi or BLE) that uses very high frequency and meager power. The high frequency allows vast packets of data to be shared, allowing for exact location capabilities. And the low power ensures that the signals have a lower chance of interference with other radio signals and more secure. It is the perfect solution for the use case under consideration.
But it still doesn’t answer our question – how can you put a UWB chip into the Airtags when they are so tiny and cost so little (compared to say an iPhone!)? Well, here’s where Apple’s crowdsourcing comes into play. The UWB chip is in the iPhone. And they have 11 billion iPhones with the chip already on the planet. And they all help find your stuff for you.
Let’s take a real example.
You have a keychain with the Airtags, and you have it synced to the “Find my” feature on your iPhone. Somewhere on a long walk on the street, you drop the keys. You are now at home and frantically searching for your keys. The “Find my” feature shows you where you dropped it. At this point, a walker on the street finds the keys and hands them over to the nearest Information booth. One of the visitors to the information booth has an iPhone with the UWB chip. The iPhone detects your “lost” keys and anonymously updates the location to the cloud. The iPhone user himself does nothing – this is all done in the background automatically. “Find my” now shows the updated location. So you walk to the Information booth and pick up your keys.
Now here’s the most exciting thing. UWB is over a 100 years old but was until recently used more for military purposes. With new advances – the technology has become cost-effective, and Apple uses its massive user base to make the feature super powerful.
Let’s do some “Airtags” Future Gazing….
What about the other leaders – aren’t they doing it too? Samsung has already released a smart tag + UWB as part of its latest Galaxy phone feature sets earlier this year. And the leader of Bluetooth location services (Tile) supposedly has a UWB version release by the end of the year.
The UWB itself has other use-cases (precise sharing of data and payments for privacy) and is available on both the leading Android and iPhone models. And Apple’s “Find my” extends to friends, devices, and Airbags. “Find my” is likely to spawn off a convenient and rich set of use-cases in the future.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Apple is launching Airtags across the Globe (including India) in a few weeks. Until then, have fun watching this excellent commercial the Apple team has put together.