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Tech tracker Tile testifies in Congress: Apple's geolocation nagging is so not fair
Alleges anticompetitive behaviour in the walled garden. There's no party like a third party, eh?
Channeling their inner Kevin Patterson, Tile this week bemoaned Apple's unfairness to a US congressional panel in Colorado investigating the iPhone maker's stewardship of its app ecosystem.
Using some pretty stark language, the tech-tracking startup's general counsel, Kirsten Daru, accused Apple of anti-competitive behaviours that "have gotten worse, not better," in statements reported by Reuters.
Tile is one of four companies that have appeared before the House Judiciary Committee with an axe to grind about Apple, Google, Amazon and FaceBook's alleged anti-competitive practices, which the firms claim push smaller businesses out of the market. The complaint centres on Apple's insistence that users must regularly give permission for Tile to operate in the background.
Background location access is fundamental to Tile's product. Without it, people would only realise they’ve lost their items by keeping the app perpetually open. Forcing users to periodically reauthorise background geolocations permissions introduces the possibility of accidentally pressing "Deny" and then failing to realise they had left their keys in the pub. Or, in former UK prime minister David Cameron's case, their child.
And while this is the case for all third-party apps, Tile claims Apple has repeatedly made overtures that it would introduce persistent location permissions for third-party apps. This promise, it says, is yet to materialise.
But on a technical level, it's possible, as noted by Tile's evidence. Apple's Find My app uses background geolocation tracking without the need for users to regularly opt in.
Tile also cited rumours that Apple is developing its own object-tracking hardware, with a likely launch of Q3 this year. Dubbed "AirTags", this product would integrate with the already-familiar Find My app. Crucially, it would serve as a direct competitor to the likes of Tile and rival firm Chippolo, albeit with the distinct advantage of having access to APIs and permissions denied to third-party developers, as well as the new ultra-wideband radio found in newer iPhones.
Tile has a lot on the line here. In addition to its own hardware efforts, the firm is actively trying to switch to a service-provider model, having inked deals with the likes of Sony and Skullcandy to integrate its location-tracking tech into headphones and other big-ticket consumer tech products. There's also a fair amount of VC cash buoying Tile, which raised $45m last year, for a total funding amount of $104m.
A best-case scenario for Tile would see legislators even the playing field, allowing Tile and Apple to compete on the same terms. However, Apple argues that its restrictions on background location permissions are a necessary evil to protect user privacy – which is an argument we're fairly sympathetic to, with the caveat that Apple should be pouring that same sauce on its own gander.
The Register has asked Tile and Apple for comment. ®