Tile, the company that pioneered Bluetooth tracking tags, said its devices will work with Amazon’s Sidewalk Network starting in July. The news is notable for two reasons. The first is that it expands Amazon’s Sidewalk network considerably and the second is that it offers Tile (and maybe others) a way to compete with Apple’s newly created AirTags and its Find My service.
Amazon announced the Sidewalk network in 2019 saying it would offer long-range connectivity for devices that were outside the scope of a home’s Wi-Fi network. A year later Amazon gave more details explaining that the Sidewalk network would run over LoRa-based radios with a proprietary software layer on top that would help obscure the devices that used the network for privacy and security reasons.
The network would offer low-data rates and be able to send packets over half a mile using 900 Mhz unlicensed spectrum. To build the network Amazon embedded Sidewalk radios inside some of its products such as the Ring bridge and the fourth generation Amazon Echo.
Back when Amazon launched Sidewalk in 2019 I wrote:
[Daniel Rausch, VP of smart home at Amazon] says Amazon may open up the protocol to others in a year, but was pretty vague on details about chips and the protocol itself. But make no mistake, the infrastructure Amazon has built so its Ring hardware can communicate outside has the potential to become a long-range, low-power network for a variety of IoT devices. Just like we have a ton of devices that now incorporate Alexa, we may one day have a ton of devices that incorporate Sidewalk. And if Amazon can see a way to build a network like that, it can certainly see a way to build products and services that would run on top of it.
With the Tile news, Amazon is fulfilling that promise and doing one better. It will now run the Sidewalk protocol over Bluetooth radios as well. This will make the Sidewalk network denser and expand it to any phone that is running an app that can create a node on the Sidewalk Networks using the phone.
Now Amazon has the potential to track objects in places where people don’t have a lot of Amazon Echo or Ring devices. It also means that a company that wants to use the Sidewalk Network doesn’t have to embed a LoRa chip inside their product — they can stick with Bluetooth. And by using established radios and their own devices, Amazon is avoiding a capital-intensive network build. It has created an IoT network that doesn’t cost much to build or operate, which means Amazon can offer connectivity for very little.
This combination of Amazon and Tile can provide better coverage and more potential devices using the network, which solves the chicken and egg problem associated with building a network in the first place. According to an Amazon spokeswoman, all current 2020 and future Tile device models, a portion of legacy Tile devices, and several partner products with built-in Tile finding technology embedded will connect to Sidewalk using Bluetooth.
As part of the Tile announcement, Amazon said lock maker Level lock will also use the Amazon Sidewalk protocol, which offers yet another advantage. Amazon is showing other companies how open it is to bring others onto the Sidewalk platform. It could also offer another way to advertise the security protocols that Amazon says it has developed for the Sidewalk Network. After all, if it’s secure enough for a lock company it’s probably good enough for Bluetooth earbuds or a connected sensor that needs to share a bit of data.
Which brings me to Apple’s AirTags. It feels like Amazon may have outplayed Apple again here. Apple’s AirTags and its Find My network is an awesome location tracking experience, albeit one that’s trapped within the Apple ecosystem. But based on the use case Apple has built and its Find My naming convention, Apple’s thinking too narrowly. Tile can use Amazon’s Sidewalk to build a better tracking service using Amazon’s low-power wide-area IoT network and Level lock can add more secure connectivity to its products with the same service. But another company could use the network to build a sensor for tracking your garden’s health or a pollution monitor that shares limited data.
Apple built a network for finding things, but Amazon is building a network for connecting things. That’s a big difference and one that shows how savvy Amazon is when it comes to thinking about delivering a service as opposed to a one-off product.