I think a lot of people would agree that AirTags are some of (if not) the best Bluetooth trackers on the market. After all, when over half of your country's smartphone market share is Apple, there's no shortage of location relays. But before I start rambling about AirTags and (what I'd call) their missed opportunity, let's talk about what came before.
Innovating on the faults of its GPS-based predecessors, Tile debuted in 2012. Instead of the power-hungry methods used by trackers past, Tile used Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. Of course, this limited tracking to a range of around 200ft/61m[^1], but for their target audience, this was acceptable. Tile wasn't trying to become the next Lojack, instead it focused on locating household objects like keys, wallets, and remotes. Better yet, for those wanting GPS tracking, a few options were available. If you subscribe to Tile Premium[^2], the app keeps a GPS log of your trackers location whenever they are nearby, and you will be alerted if any leave your vicinity. Again, this functionality was optimal for most buyers, but what if worse comes to worst? What if you genuinely lost a Tile tracker and needed to find it? Easy, just crowdsource a location! Once a tracker is marked as lost, everyone with the Tile app installed starts to anonymously submit their location if its Bluetooth signal is detected. It gets the job done but loses effectiveness if you live outside a major city. As someone who resides in a suburban area, The Tile app reports that 930 people within a 5mi/8km radius also have the app installed. Doing some math[^3], that means there's around a 45% chance that a randomly placed tag is detectable by someone in my area at any given time. Not bad! So, the Tile was innovative, but is there any way coverage could be expanded to 100%?
Ah yes, Apple's controversial competitor to Tile. A lot of the core technology is the same, except for one major detail: practically every iPhone reports their locations without the need for a dedicated app.[^4] Around 85% of Americans own a smartphone[^5], and 55% of those are iPhones[^6]. While AirTags have a much smaller Bluetooth range of 30ft/9m[^7], the overwhelming number of iPhone users compensates for this. How much? Running the same calculation as before[^8], on average 2 iPhones can detect a randomly placed AirTag at any given time within the aforementioned 5mi radius circle. This means a lost AirTag is ~203% more likely to be immediately locatable than a misplaced Tile (in my area). This is great news if you frequently loose things, so what's the catch? Exclusivity. AirTags can only be tracked from Apple devices[^9]. Now, let’s get on to the topic of this article!
Please note, I'm far from an economics expert[^10], and this paragraph is being written as a rant. Despite not owning any of their devices, I consider Apple to be a decent brand, and I trust them when it comes to basic levels of privacy/security. From what I understand about AirTags and how their location gets relayed to the Find My network, I would voluntarily opt-in to sharing the locations of detectable trackers. Yes, I would ditch my 3 Tiles to replace them with AirTags... if only I could track them without an iPhone[^9]. Ever since Tile was bought by Life360[^11], my trust in the product (as a privacy-conscious consumer) has all but faded. So let me ask: Why not bring AirTags to those outside your walled garden? You know you're going to outplace the competition overnight, so why not go all out? The way I see it, this would bring a lot of positives. First and foremost, it would firmly place AirTag's as the dominant Bluetooth tracker product. Secondly, this would improve the already-great coverage of location-relaying devices. Plus, unlike some other BLE trackers, the battery can be replaced, which means less e-waste in the long run. Let me reiterate that I'm unfamiliar with economics, so undoubtedly, I'm completely blind to some negative consequences. The worst I can think of is, due to a lack of competition, Apple could start charging whatever they want for the device and/or access to the service. Yep, two and a half paragraphs leading up to this! Thankfully, there's only two and a half more to go.
While doing bits of research for this article, I found a few other brands selling similar Bluetooth trackers. Sure, Innware and TrackR exist, but I can only assume they hold a market share too small to be viable for continuous location tracking. The one other product I found was Samsung's SmartTags. Boasting a 250ft/76m range[^12], decent U.S. market share (45% Android, with ⅔ of that being Samsung phones[^6]), and even having a programmable smart-button, I thought to myself "Wow, is this Android's answer to the AirTag? Could it really be?" Alas, they're also held back by exclusivity, only newer Samsung Galaxy phones are compatible.[^12] Since I couldn't find precise metrics for how many people own a qualifying device (Let alone how many opt-in to SmartThings services), all I can say is, in 100% perfect conditions[^13], coverage is similar to AirTags. Of course, I can't forget about good ole GPS and cellular trackers! You know, like that funny-looking Apple Watch on your father’s ankle. Admittedly, the hardware behind GPS and cellular connectivity is both bulkier and more power-consuming than Bluetooth, but that's not to say the technology has become antiquated. Such devices are frequently found in the shipping industry, as well as plenty of other sectors[^14].
This is kind of the first article/blog post I've ever written, and of course it was a rant. I will admit, this post is horrible when it comes to reliability and being backed by facts. Yes, a lot of it is opinionated, and I only have a few outside sources. With that disclaimer out of the way, I'll post any corrections to this and future articles as notes under the #errata tag. Comments and feedback are welcome! If you do not have a fediverse account to reply from, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line being this article's URL.
[^1]: https://www.tile.com/en-us/blog/how-far-can-you-track-a-tile-bluetooth-tracker-range Yes, the Tile Pro is advertised to reach up to 400ft, but I'm going off the general statistic of 200ft listed at the top.
[^2]: This is not an advertisement.
[^3]: A = tracking distance of a tag in miles (ft/5280). B = Desired area to calculate coverage of in miles². C = Number of users or devices relaying tracker locations within area B. Coverage = (A × C) ÷ B.
[^4]: Devices running iOS 14.5 or newer, plus you'd have to go out of your way to restrict location permissions from the Find My app.
[^7]: I couldn't track down an official measurement, however many sites clam between 20 and 40 feet (6 to 12 meters).
[^8]: Same calculation as footnote 3, except C = (County population per square mile × B × 85% × 55%)
[^9]: The "Tracker Detect" app for Android doesn't count, and OpenHaystack's proxy is an edge-case.
[^10]: Comprehensive summary of my economics education: 1 semester in high school.
[^12]: 394ft/120m is advertised, but this review (and others) contradict: https://www.tomsguide.com/reviews/samsung-galaxy-smarttag
[^13]: By this, I mean all of Samsung's 30% U.S. market share owns a compatible device, and they all opt-in to SmartThings services. In practice, I'd estimate real figures to be between 40% and 90% coverage.