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AirTags, which Apple released in April, offer seamless integration with the iOS ecosystem and nifty AR functionality. The tiny circular trackers are also joining Apple’s mesh network, a group of devices that connect to one another without a central router. Amazon is also playing here.
Where we’re going, we don’t need satellites or traditional spectrum gatekeepers.
Networking for the 2020s
AirTags run on Find My, a crowdsourced network of hundreds of millions of Apple devices that use Bluetooth to detect missing devices or items close by. It’s all powered by Apple’s U1 chip, which lets iPhones and AirTags communicate via ultra-wideband (UWB) radio frequencies, i.e., short-range, high-frequency wireless signals.
Supported devices essentially become mini base stations, sending a staccato of low-power pings to one another. The beauty of UWB is that it’s so efficient, a $29 device (an AirTag) can last a year before you need to replace the battery. AirTags can deliver precise tracking without WiFi or GPS by piggybacking on iOS/macOS relays to the cloud.
Sidewalk would like a word
Around when Apple revealed the U1 chip in late 2019, Amazon unveiled its own low-power wireless protocol: Sidewalk.
How it works: Echo and Ring devices kick in a small portion of bandwidth, acting as bridges for a network that reaches beyond the home. Sidewalk could let smart home devices continue functioning even without an internet connection. Or, pet owners could use Tile-esque smart collars to track a lost pet up to a mile away. (If the doge has left for the moon, they’re out of luck.)
Speaking of Tile...The OG device tracker has no love lost for Apple, recently accusing it of anticompetitive behavior in congressional testimony. Last week, Tile said it would join the Sidewalk network, along with smart lock maker Level and CareBand, which creates wearables for people with dementia.
Who wins on network effects?
Since the value of these networks increases with the amount of silicon foot soldiers supporting them, this is a game of scale.
While Apple has an edge in device base, Amazon is thinking big. “Sidewalk is all about the next billion things that are going to get on the network,” Amazon hardware chief Dave Limp told CNBC last Friday. As Sidewalk builds a coalition of the willing, Apple is also adding support for third-party devices, from earbuds to e-bikes.
- Note: Both networks are encrypted, and allow users to opt out.
Zoom out: As we wait on 5G networks and low-earth orbit satellites to fully deliver on their potential, UWB could establish a new communication layer for the Internet of Things without congesting existing networks.
Amazon and Apple aren’t the only ones sold on the idea: Samsung, Sony, and multiple carmakers are also developing products using similar technology. —RD