With increased sales and products, things have never looked better for Tile. So why is its CEO so angry at Apple?
On APRIL 20, Apple blew Tile’s business out of the water. The announcement of AirTags presented Tile, which was founded in 2012, a direct competitor, if not better, for its main product line. Tile’s tiny trackers, where people connect to keys, bags and bikes, were a hit this September, bringing in $40 million in investment and increasing revenue by 50 percent in the first half of 2021.
However, when AirTags hit stores in May of this year, Tile CEO CJ Prober slammed into his company’s new, super-large competitor. Prober claimed Apple was a “runaway monopoly train”, with Tile adding that “while we welcome competition from Apple” there should be fair competition.
Tile’s complaints range from how Apple supposedly restricted access to Tile’s “Find My” network to the supposed breakdown of its formerly close relationship – Tile trackers were available for purchase at the Apple Store and not now. According to Prober, Apple was coming for lunch. Six months later, Tile launched its latest Mate, Pro, Sticker and Slim trackers. Tile Ultra, the first ultra-wideband (UWB) tracker with the same “living room-scale GPS” technology inside AirTags, is on its way early next year.
Often times, Apple’s entry can legitimize an industry, such as smartwatches. Did that happen to the audience as it entered that market? According to Prober, things are rosy. “We have sold over 40 million Tiles. Revenues increased in the first half of the year. Third-party product activations are a major focus of ours, we’ve driven over 200% year-over-year growth. The job is good.”
But the unrest continues. Prober is still dissatisfied with Apple and says Apple’s actions have had a hard time impacting his business. “Despite Apple’s unfair competition, we’re seeing really strong business momentum.” It wasn’t so long ago that you could buy Tile products from the Apple Store, Prober said. “And then we were kicked out of their store very quickly. When launching new Find My experiences, they implemented a number of changes to their platform that deprecated our experience. Despite all that and Apple’s self-preference, business is good – but frankly, it would be better if we competed fairly.”
Apple’s products are often praised for how easily they can interact with each other, like the smoothness of connecting AirPods to your iPhone or Mac. But these are features that Apple usually keeps to itself. “Look at how Apple differentiates AirTags over Tile—it’s all platform capabilities they’ve reserved for themselves,” says Prober. “Uninterrupted 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 experience. “On the Apple Watch, Apple blocked and then blocked my keyboard app from being made available to users for months, claiming that the keyboards were not compatible with the watch.” Apple continued to release a keyboard for watchOS with the launch of the Watch Series 7 in October. Eleftheriou also pointed to a contrast between Apple’s keyboard and the limited APIs it makes available to keyboard developers, noting that they are often “broken” and “make it impossible to provide a brilliant keyboard experience.” Apple declined a request for comment on the FlickType founder’s comments.
This API access issue, according to Prober, offers an explanation for why Tile is late arriving to UWB viewers, given that it has long been the biggest player in the viewer market. During the product launch, Apple enthusiastically showcased the capabilities this technology provides to AirTags, allowing you to find your lost item within centimeters. Then Samsung did the same with SmartTag+. Tile’s first UWB tracker, Ultra, isn’t coming until early 2022—an exact date is still to be confirmed. What’s taking the Tile so long? “It was impossible for us to launch an ultra-broadband-based product,” he says. “We do not have access to the APIs on Samsung devices or Apple devices.”
Prober insists that Apple and Samsung are leveraging first-party platforms to give them something no one else can access. Tile Ultra is now on the way, as the company accesses Apple APIs with the final release of iOS 15, continues to work on getting new Android 12 APIs, and expects Samsung to support them soon.
Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, doesn’t see Apple slowing down in its expansion into new categories any time soon. “Apple has full control over its offerings and ecosystem. So it is in a great position to add new products and services quickly.” However, it calls for some caution. “Apple can develop competing products, but partners need to have enough room to develop.
It will also be important in terms of not raising the eyebrows of the regulators for the demand.”
Tile’s prospects remain inextricably linked with Apple. After all, what could prevent Apple from continuing to make decisions that Prober finds unfair? Regulators for one. The Tile CEO believes Apple’s behavior towards his company has caught the attention of legislators. “You’re starting to see a global momentum around this. Look at the law passed in Korea. Some of the activities taking place in the EU. ”
Prober also cites a recent congressional hearing in the US that included lawmakers and Tile general counsel Kirsten Daru as another example of this growing interest. “Regulators understand issues like these. It’s simple in your face,” she says. The hearing in question saw US lawmakers raise concerns that Apple is an “unfair watchdog.” “These are not the actions of companies that feel they have meaningful competition,” Senator Mike Lee said in April of this year. In this case, Lee was talking about how Apple and Google removed Parler from their App Stores following the January 6 attack on the US capital. “I am optimistic that there will be change soon, which has a meaningful impact on preventing this type of unfair competition in the future,” Prober says.
“Apple has dealt with self-opinion in the past. 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 did not allow apps like Spotify to direct users to their own websites to sign up for the service. This stance is now for media apps. “If Tile can prove that she prefers this kind of self-interest, they could have a good legal case,” Lemley says.
Following Prober’s comments, Apple said: “We released the APIs this summer and are working with UWB chipset developers to ensure iOS compatibility – some of which already have development kits available for purchase.” About Prober’s accusations of unfair play, Apple says, “We’ve always embraced competition as the best way to provide great experiences for our customers, and we’ve worked hard to create a platform on iOS that allows third-party developers to thrive.”
“These companies are not just interested in using Apple’s platform to reach Apple users. Instead, Tile wants to be the one to determine how to reach Apple users,” says Neil Cybart, Apple-focused industry analyst. Cybart’s position is similar to that of Spotify and Epic Games. “Anything other than unhindered access to Apple’s platform will then be referred to as anticompetitive behavior by Apple.” To move forward, Cybart sees Tile teaming up with a larger smartphone maker as an option – one avenue Tile, third The parties are already investigating some of their collaborations.
For Prober, it all comes back to perceived injustice and fighting against it. “It brought heightened passion,” he says of Apple’s behavior. “And it created a rallying call for our teams. Companies similarly positioned may be concerned about the repercussions of speaking up on these issues, but I believe we need to do the right thing for the future of third-party ecosystems and other developers.”