AirTag lost its way

Wed, Nov 10, 2021 3-minute read

Apple released their new AirTag product six months ago, and as competent as it is for finding lost gear, Apple's done everything possible to hamstring the little device to make it frustrating to use.

The product idea is simple: you buy one and attach it to something you don't want to misplace, like your car keys. Then you can use your iPhone to locate that thing when you inevitably misplace it. For that one specific use case, and if you live alone, AirTag is magical. The "Find My" app tells you how far and in what direction the lost device is so that you can walk right up to it. I've owned and used various Tile devices before, and AirTags are easier to use and work better. From a hardware standpoint, I can't imagine what I'd improve about them. However, Apple's software decisions are constraining the lovely hardware to the point that I don't want to use it anymore.

All of AirTag's problems come down to a single issue: Apple is afraid that someone will use an AirTag to stalk another person, to the point that they've deliberately encumbered it to near uselessness:

  • If your phone detects that an AirTag is moving around with you, and its owner isn't nearby, then the phone will warn you about it. That's great if you're being stalked, but terrible if it's notifying a thief that there's a tag in your backpack that they've just stolen.
  • Inexplicably, Family Sharing doesn't work for AirTags. I can't help my wife find her car keys, even though we're already using the "Find My" app to share our locations. If someone were coercing me to carry an AirTag around so they could track me, they could also coerce me into sharing my location with them through that same app.
  • If I grab my wife's keys for a quick trip to the grocery store, her AirTag on them will start beeping to alert me to its presence. That's just silly; see the previous point.
  • The latest iOS beta lets you manually scan for hidden AirTags, sure to be a favorite must-have feature among thieves.

Apple claims that AirTags are meant for lost items, not stolen ones, but that's a smokescreen for the fact that they haven't figured out how to reconcile privacy with having the things work as expected. Despite their claims, of course they're for recovering stolen items! If it weren't for the disastrous software features, they'd be perfect for tracking down a purse thief or the person who stole your kid's bike. Apple is selling a soup spoon, then acting shocked and dismayed when someone wants to use it to eat stew. If Apple can't see why someone would naturally want to use an AirTag to get stolen things back, then that's a telling failure of their imagination.

Anti-tracking features are good. No one wants to enable stalkers and I don't blame Apple for that. However, they're so paralyzed by even the possibility that someone might use an AirTag in a bad way that they've made it useless for a bunch of good ways. If Apple's going to lock it down this hard, they shouldn't have bothered releasing AirTag to the public. It would have been far less frustrating if it had never left the design lab.

I wanted to love AirTags, but I regret my purchases. It could have been a wonderful little gadget had Apple defined it by its possibilities instead of its limitations. I won't be buying more.