Why do airtags need to be special Bluetooth tags to track instead of smartphones tracking any Bluetooth device?



With airtags on iPhones and smart tags for Android becoming common now for tracking objects I don’t understand why they need to be attached to electronics.

Why can’t I track my headphones, smart watch and other Bluetooth things through the same tracking apps?

In: Technology

Some of the features on the AirTag have been around on different devices for a long time. Things like activating a sound, blinking a light or showing the name and phone number of the owner. They are usually not killer features of things so they are not included unless it just involves a small software update. If AirTag proves to be a success then it might be something that can be integrated into more things quite easily at just a small increase in hardware cost.

One of the innovations we have not seen that often before is the way the phone can locate the AirTag. This can not be done with Bluetooth though and requires modified Bluetooth tranceivers that is capable of switching from Bluetooth mode into a wideband locator signal. This is an old technology which have been used for a long time in purpuse build locator devices however they have not been built into a Bluetooth transceiver before. But it is something which might become more common over time as we see new hardware being developed for it.


There are some programmatic issues in headphones, they weren’t built to chirp their Bluetooth mac continuously over time. But if they did, any Bluetooth receiver capable of picking up that packet and version of Bluetooth would be able to identify the mac.

The problem is tracking a generic Bluetooth device isn’t possible in iOS and got more difficult in android a few years ago. There are apps out there that will track any Bluetooth device on android, but you’ll have to go back to at least android 6 and possibly android 4 to get that functionality. Great for finding any Bluetooth device based on received signal strength.

Now the Bluetooth apps look for specific groups of macs that define the tags. The tags chirp a mac and maybe some magic numbers or data. If you aren’t using the right grouping for the mac, the app won’t read it. Is there any real world difference between a tile, cube, an apple airtag or that generic cheap thing on Amazon… Not really.

But with a selected group of macs going in software and ignoring the rest, now you have to use those tags and their app. In the case of apple, their phone.

Bluetooth is very simple at a point. Sensing a mac and looking for that specifically is easy. Then your app helps you deal with the signal strength. If you share a tag as “missing” that mac gets pushed to the cloud and other users of the app might look for it too. If they choose to share location data, finding it is pretty easy.

It’s about money. You buy into an ecosystem and work within that ecosystem. The tags cost about two bucks, no matter what they’re charging you. Build us an open source alternative with a specific hardware spec?