ON APRIL 20, Apple blew Tile’s business out of the water. The announcement of AirTags presented Tile, founded in 2012, with a direct, if not better, rival for its main product line. Tile’s tiny trackers, which people attach to keys, bags, and bicycles, have been a hit, bringing in $40 million in investment this September and sending revenues soaring by 50 percent in the first half of 2021.
However, when AirTags hit stores in May of this year, Tile CEO CJ Prober hit out at his company’s new, supersized rival. Prober claimed Apple was a “runaway monopoly train,” adding that while Tile “welcomes competition from Apple,” it has to be fair competition.
Tile’s grievances range from how Apple had supposedly restricted Tile’s access to the “Find My” network to the alleged deterioration of its previously close relationship—Tile trackers used to be available to buy on the Apple Store, and now they are not. As far as Prober was concerned, Apple was coming for his lunch. Six months later, Tile released its latest Mate, Pro, Sticker, and Slim trackers. Tile Ultra, its first ultrawideband (UWB) tracker—the same “GPS on the living-room scale” tech inside AirTags—is on its way early next year.
Often Apple’s entrance can legitimize a sector, just as it did with smartwatches. Has this happened with trackers now that it has jumped into that market? According to Prober, business is rosy. “We’ve sold over 40 million Tiles. Revenue was up in the first half of the year. Third-party product activations, a big focus of ours, we’re up over 200 percent year over year. Business is good.”
But disquiet remains. Prober still isn’t happy with Apple and says that Apple’s actions have hit his business in a way that’s hard to take. “We’re seeing really strong business momentum—despite the unfair competition from Apple.” It wasn’t long ago that you could buy Tile’s products on the Apple Store, notes Prober. “And then, very quickly, we got kicked out of their stores. They implemented a number of changes to their platform that deprecated our experience, as they were launching their new Find My experience. Despite all of that, and despite Apple self-preferencing, business is good—but, obviously, it’s better if we are competing fairly.”
Apple’s products are often praised for how easily they interact with each other, such as the smoothness with which AirPods connect to your iPhone or Mac. However, these are features Apple typically keeps for itself. “Look at how Apple differentiates AirTags over Tile—it’s all platform capabilities that they’ve reserved for themselves,” says Prober. “The seamless activation is not available to third parties.”
Kosta Eleftheriou, founder and developer of third-party Apple Watch keyboard app FlickType, sees parallels with his own experiences. “On Apple Watch, Apple took down and then prevented my keyboard app from being available to users for months, claiming that keyboards were not suitable for the watch.” Apple went on to release a keyboard for WatchOS alongside the release of the Watch Series 7 in October. Eleftheriou also points to a contrast between Apple’s keyboard and the limited APIs it has made available to keyboard developers, declaring they are often “broken” and make it “impossible to provide a polished keyboard experience.” Apple declined a request for comment on the FlickType founder’s comments.
This issue of API access, according to Prober, provides an explanation of why Tile is coming to UWB trackers late, given that it’s long been the big player in the tracker market. Apple enthusiastically showcased the capabilities this tech gives AirTags during the product reveal, letting you find your lost item to within centimeters. Then Samsung followed suit with SmartTag+. Tile’s first UWB tracker, the Ultra, is not coming until early 2022—with an exact date still to be confirmed. What’s taken Tile so long? “It was impossible for us to launch an ultrawideband-based product,” he says. “We don’t have access to the APIs on either Samsung devices or Apple devices.”
Prober insists Apple and Samsung took advantage of their first-party platforms to give themselves something nobody else would have access to. The Tile Ultra is now on its way, as the company has access to the Apple APIs with the recent release of iOS 15, while it continues to work to get new Android 12 APIs and expects Samsung will soon support these.
Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, doesn’t see Apple slowing down in its expansion into new categories any time soon. “Apple enjoys full control over its offerings and ecosystem. So it’s in a great position to add newer products and services at a rapid pace.” However, he does urge some caution. “Apple can develop competing products but needs to keep enough room for partners to thrive. This will be important for the Apple ecosystem also to not raise regulators’ eyebrows.”
Tile’s prospects remain inextricably linked to Apple. After all, what’s to stop Apple from continuing to make decisions that Prober deems unfair? Well, regulators for one. Tile’s CEO believes Apple’s behavior towards his company has caught the eye of legislators. “You’re starting to see global momentum around that. Look at the legislation that was passed in Korea. Some of the activities that are happening in the EU.
Prober also points to a recent congressional hearing in the US, involving lawmakers and Tile’s general counsel Kirsten Daru, as another example of this enhanced interest. “Regulators grasp issues like this. It’s in-your-face straightforward,” he says. The hearing in question saw US lawmakers raise concerns that Apple was an “unfair gatekeeper.” Speaking in April of this year, Senator Mike Lee said, “These are not the actions of companies that feel like they have meaningful competition.” In this case Lee was referring to how Apple and Google removed Parler from their respective App Stores in the wake of the January 6 attack on the US capitol. “I’m optimistic that there’s going to be change soon, which has a meaningful impact on preventing this type of unfair competition in the future,” says Prober.
“Apple, in the past, has engaged in self-preferencing. For example, making it harder for Spotify, which competes with Apple’s own music service, to reach consumers,” says Stanford Law School professor Mark Lemley. Previously, Apple would not permit apps like Spotify to point users to their own websites to sign up to the service. This stance has now been rolled back for media apps. “If Tile can prove that sort of self-preferencing, they may have a good legal case,” believes Lemley.
Apple provided the following statement on Prober’s comments: “We made APIs available this summer and have been working with UWB chipset developers to ensure iOS compatibility—some already have development kits available for purchase.” On Prober’s accusations of unfair play, Apple states, “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.”
“These companies aren’t just interested in utilizing Apple’s platform to reach Apple users. Instead, Tile wants to be the one to determine how it will reach Apple users,” notes Apple-focused industry analyst Neil Cybart. Cybart sees similarity between its position and that of Spotify and Epic Games. “Anything short of unencumbered access to Apple’s platform is then referred to as anti-competitive behavior on Apple’s part.” To move forward, Cybart sees Tile teaming up with a larger smartphone manufacturer as an option—an avenue Tile is already exploring with some of its third-party collaborations.
For Prober, it all comes back to perceived unfairness—and fighting against it. “It’s brought an increased passion,” he says of Apple’s behavior. “And created a rallying cry for our teams. Companies that are being similarly situated might be worried about the repercussions of being vocal about these things, but I’m a believer that we have to do what’s right for the future of third-party ecosystems and other developers.”