The 2021 WWDC keynote has come and gone. Apple announced far more than we could fit in one issue, so we rounded up 20 of the most interesting features in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS 12 Monterey, and watchOS 8: ten that are long overdue and ten that were unexpected. Meanwhile, Julio Ojeda-Zapata offers detailed looks at iPadOS 15 and watchOS 8. Finally, Glenn Fleishman tells you what to do when you’re alerted that an AirTag is moving with you and explains how Apple has already tweaked its AirTag safety parameters. Notable Mac app releases this week include 1Password 7.8.5; Firefox 89; Pages 11.1, Numbers 11.1, and Keynote 11.1; Simon 5.0; and SoundSource 5.3.3.
Apart from watchOS 8 and iPad-specific (see “iPadOS 15 Improves Multitasking, Adds iPhone Features,” 7 June 2021) aspects of iPadOS 15, nearly everything Apple discussed during the WWDC keynote was spread across multiple operating systems. Worries that Apple would deprecate macOS in favor of iOS have proven unfounded, but the company is clearly spreading features across as many of its operating systems as possible. More so than ever before, Apple is emphasizing the power of buying into the overall Apple ecosystem. It may be a walled garden, but it’s awfully pleasant inside.
As such, it doesn’t make much sense to write an article about what’s new in iOS 15 or even macOS 12 Monterey (yes, that’s the name). Instead, we’re focusing on a word that kept cropping up as we were watching Apple’s recorded WWDC keynote in SlackBITS with numerous other TidBITS readers. “Finally!”
A grid view in FaceTime, AirPlay to the Mac, multiple timers on the Apple Watch—here we’ll look at the top ten features that we’ve wanted for years. We won’t belabor the point, but after every feature listed below, join us in saying, “It’s about time!” (And yes, there may have been an expletive before “time” while we were brainstorming the article.)
FaceTime Adopts Features from Zoom
That brainstorming call? It took place in Zoom because Zoom is fast and easy, and it just works. FaceTime has long been weak in the videoconferencing space (see “Videoconferencing Options in the Age of Pandemic,” 2 April 2020), but Apple may be turning FaceTime into a contender with these features, which are commonplace in other videoconferencing apps:
- Grid view: FaceTime will finally get grid view. ’Nuff said.
- Portrait mode: Although Apple said nothing about virtual backgrounds, FaceTime will provide a Portrait mode effect that blurs the background.
- FaceTime links: You will no longer be limited to adding contacts within the Apple ecosystem to FaceTime calls. With the new operating systems, you’ll be able to create FaceTime links and share them with Windows and Android users who have a Chrome-derived browser like Brave, Google Chrome, or Microsoft Edge.
- Scheduled calls: FaceTime links can also encapsulate time, so you can now schedule calls and have them appear in your calendar with a Join button, just like Fantastical.
- Mic modes: FaceTime will provide Voice Isolation mode to focus on your voice and cut out background noise, whereas Wide Spectrum leaves ambient sound unfiltered. Zoom’s similar features have been important to families switching between one-on-one meetings and kids taking music lessons, for instance.
Designate Account Recovery and Legacy Contacts
If someone you know forgets their Apple ID password, there isn’t much you can do to help at this point, apart from walking them through the account recovery process. However, once the 2021 versions of Apple’s operating systems come out, people can designate one or more people as an Account Recovery Contact. Once someone has listed you as an Account Recovery Contact, if they lose access to their account, you’ll be able to help them reset their password and regain access to their account. Many of us are already pondering which elderly relatives need to enable this feature once it’s available.
Apple also took this feature to the next level, allowing you to designate people as Legacy Contacts. Then, in the event of your death, those people can access your account and personal information. Back when we were running Take Control Books, Joe Kissell wrote Take Control of Your Digital Legacy to cover issues like this (see “Aunt Agatha Ponders Her Digital Legacy,” 30 January 2017), and more recently, we explained “How to Request Access to a Deceased Family Member’s Apple Accounts” (17 June 2020). Having had to help a friend access her late husband’s account recently, we strongly recommend that everyone designate several Legacy Contacts as soon as possible.
AirPlay Audio and Video to Macs
For nearly a decade, it has bothered us that you couldn’t send audio or video to a Mac using AirPlay. That’s changing in macOS 12 Monterey, with support for sending content to a Mac from an iPhone, iPad, or another Mac. Macs will also function as AirPlay 2 speakers, allowing you to use one as a secondary speaker for multi-room audio.
Now you’ll be able to do things like:
- Start a podcast on your iPhone, maybe in an app like Overcast, and AirPlay the audio to your Mac when you get back to your desk. This is a more straightforward solution than using a cloud-based podcast player, and you can simply switch audio back to your iPhone if you need to step away.
- AirPlay a Keynote presentation from your MacBook Air to a large-screen Mac in an office you’re visiting.
- Start watching a live-streamed video on your iPhone at lunch, and then AirPlay it to your Mac when it’s time to return to the office.
There are other solutions to these desires, and some third-party apps can turn your Mac into an AirPlay receiver, but official support has been long overdue. There’s just never been a good reason your Mac couldn’t be an AirPlay receiver.
AirPods Pro and AirPods Max Get Find My Network Support
You’ve been able to find lost AirPods using the Find My app for a while, but the feature has been limited. Since the AirPods could only transfer location information through your iPhone, what you see on the map is the last location your AirPods were connected to your iPhone. Josh once used this to recover his AirPods when they slipped out of his pocket on a family member’s couch, but that was pretty lucky.
Now the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max can tap into Apple’s extensive Find My network—the same network of Apple devices that powers AirTag—to keep tabs on lost AirPods. It will provide only an approximate location, but hopefully, that will be enough to get you within Bluetooth range so you can play a sound and locate them. Sadly, Apple said nothing about this feature coming to the plain old AirPods, but perhaps the company is working on a new version of those that will incorporate it and other new features.
We’ve all gotten used to having credit cards and tickets in the Wallet app, but Apple is now promising that you’ll also be able to add your driver’s license and state ID to Wallet, at least in some states in the US. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Wallet app could really replace your wallet? Apple says you’ll be able to present the digital version of your ID at TSA checkpoints using an iPhone or paired Apple Watch.
But will we actually be able to stop carrying a couple of physical cards at all times? Would you feel comfortable giving your iPhone to a state trooper who just pulled you over? And would they accept it? Plus, it’s not like Apple Pay support is universal—for instance, Home Depot doesn’t take it. Apple’s moving in the right direction, and with the company’s clout, we might get there eventually, but we doubt iOS 15 will eliminate the need to carry cards. See “Two Wallet Cases: Twelve South BookBook Vol. 2 and Ekster iPhone 11 Pro Case” (12 December 2019) and its comments for some suggestions for wallet cases.
Siri Speech Recognition Takes Place on Your Device
With iOS 15, Siri will work like Voice Control and process all speech on the device itself, instead of sending every query to Apple’s servers, even for commands as simple as pausing music. This change should increase performance by eliminating the need to talk to Apple’s services. It should also improve reliability for those who live in areas where cellular Internet access isn’t universal. Plus, it eliminates one of the biggest privacy concerns about Siri. Apple was once trounced in the media for having contractors listen to Siri voice recordings, forcing the company to make changes (see “Apple Announces Siri Privacy Reforms,” 29 August 2019). The big question is if Siri’s dictation will also crib from Voice Control, which has long done a better job (see “How iOS and macOS Dictation Can Learn from Voice Control’s Dictation,” 31 August 2020).
Notes Gets Tags and Mentions
Notes is a good note-taking app, but it has long lacked a feature that’s been standard in most other note-taking apps for years: tags. Tags are one of those things you either get or you don’t, but for those who do, they’re a helpful way of grouping notes together without having to put them in a folder manually. For instance, if you make shopping lists for different stores, you could tag them with #Shopping to see them all.
Another useful new feature in Notes that’s commonplace in other collaborative systems is @mentions. If you’re sharing a note with others, you can add an @mention to the text to call their attention to it.
Launch Content on Apple TV with Siri on a HomePod mini
With tvOS 15 and the upcoming HomePod update, you’ll be able to tell a HomePod mini to play a specific show. For example, say, “Hey Siri, play Game of Thrones season 2, episode 3.” Apple didn’t mention the original HomePod, so we’re unsure if it’ll be able to do that or not. We also don’t know if it will work with Netflix, given that the Apple TV app has no insight into Netflix’s programming, or with shows displayed through cable provider apps.
Competing streaming media players have had features along these lines for a while. For example, Google Home smart speakers could play content to Chromecast dongles, and Amazon sells a Fire TV box with built-in Alexa. Sure, you can use Siri directly on the Apple TV and tell Siri on an iPhone to AirPlay content to an Apple TV, but there is something magical about speaking a command to the air to start playing a show on your TV.
Autofill of Two-Factor Authentication Codes
Apple didn’t mention this feature during the keynote, but it’s one of our favorites. If a website offers two-factor authentication, you’ll be able to set up verification codes in Settings > Password in iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, or in the (new) Passwords pane of System Preferences or Safari in macOS 12 Monterey. Once you do that, the necessary verification codes will autofill whenever you sign into the site.
Temporary iCloud Storage Facilitates New Device Setup
If you’re running low on iCloud storage when you buy a new device, you may not be able to use iCloud Backup to move your data to the new device, an annoying Catch-22. With iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, iCloud will provide you as much storage as you need to complete a temporary backup for free for up to 3 weeks. It’s embarrassing that iCloud accounts come with only 5 GB of free storage, rendering them useless for many things, but this change should improve the setup experience for many users who wouldn’t otherwise need to purchase additional iCloud storage.
Although we mocked Apple somewhat in “Ten “It’s About Time!” Features from WWDC 2021” (7 June 2021) for the many features that feel as though they’re either catching up with the competition or have been obviously missing for years, numerous other features announced at the WWDC 2021 keynote feel more innovative. Here are our ten favorites. (And no, Apple didn’t say anything about future Apple silicon chips. We’re disappointed too.)
SharePlay and Screen Sharing
Apple made a big deal about a new technology called SharePlay that promises to allow media and screen sharing to FaceTime conversations. That may not be something you’ve imagined wanting, but for the teenage set, being able to listen to music or watch videos together has become more of a thing during the pandemic. SharePlay syncs shared media so everyone can watch the same video at the same time, and everyone can control the playback with everyone else staying in sync the entire time. It also leverages the Apple ecosystem, so you can connect with others over FaceTime on an iPad while watching video on an Apple TV or listening to music on a HomePod.
More interesting for the older set is SharePlay’s option for sharing screens, which might be a good addition to the tools we already have for helping friends and relatives with technical problems. The younger folks will probably watch each other playing games.
Tap to Enter Locks
HomeKit smart locks have been a thing for a while, but they’re a pain to use. To unlock them, you either need to fumble with a key or tap a button in an app on your iPhone, which is a pain when your hands are full of groceries. With iOS 15 and watchOS 8 and a compatible smart lock, you can add the “key” to Wallet and simply tap your smart lock with an iPhone or Apple Watch to unlock it. Hotel chains also plan to support the technology, starting with Hyatt, which may eventually provide a welcome end to flaky card keys.
Live Text Reads Text from Photos
We’ve been playing with an app from longtime developer Alco Blom called Photos Search for the Mac and iOS. It scans your entire photo library for text in images and lets you search through the results, among other features. Sadly, once iOS 15 and macOS 12 Monterey ship, Photos Search will have competition from Apple’s Live Text feature. It treats text in photos like text anywhere else, enabling you to use functions like copy and paste, lookup, and translate—and presumably Spotlight search. However, you will need an iPad with an A12 Bionic chip or later or an M1-based Mac (it presumably works on all iPhones that can update to iOS 15). Perhaps Alco Blom will be able to leverage Live Text to make Photos Search into a better front end for exploring the text embedded in your photos.
Conversation Boost Helps with Mild Hearing Loss
Once Apple updates the AirPods Pro with support for Conversation Boost, it might become commonplace to see senior citizens wearing their AirPods alongside high school seniors. For those who have mild hearing loss, Conversation Boost will focus the AirPods Pro microphones on the person sitting in front of you and reduce ambient noise that makes hearing their voice harder.
Apple already has Live Listen, which lets you use your iPhone as a microphone for any version of the AirPods to hear conversation better; Conversation Boost would seem to be an enhanced version of that technology embedded within the AirPods Pro themselves.
And to give credit where credit is due, Jeff Porten wrote about using an iPhone and headphones to work around his lousy hearing over a decade ago in “iOS Hearing Aids… or, How to Buy Superman’s Ears” (8 February 2011).
App Privacy Reports Summarize App Behaviors
iOS 14 introduced website privacy reports in Safari and introduced App Tracking Transparency to prevent apps from sharing your information with third parties. Now Apple is taking things a step further (and undoubtedly driving Facebook even crazier) by adding elaborate App Privacy Reports to Settings. The reports will show you what system resources the app accesses, like photos or location, and with whom the apps share your data.
Perhaps the App Privacy Reports will tell us once and for all if the Facebook app is listening in on your conversations through your iPhone’s microphone!
Private Relay Promises Snoop-Proof Communications
As part of Apple’s iCloud+ online service, you’ll have access to a technology called Private Relay that redirects all of your Internet traffic through two encrypted relays. Apple says neither it nor any other party other than the ultimate destination will be able to see your Internet activity. As far as we can tell, Private Relay isn’t so much a virtual private network as a custom implementation of “onion routing,” popularized by Tor. It will be beneficial when you’re connected to questionable Wi-Fi access points or if you’re concerned about a nosy ISP. However, private communications can be used for evil as well as good. If the FBI wasn’t happy about Apple’s iMessage encryption, they’re going to be apoplectic about Private Relay.
Universal Control Provides Mac and iPad Integration
Long ago, I used a utility called Teleport to share a single keyboard and mouse between two Macs (see “Tools We Use: Teleport,” 27 August 2007), and there’s a modern app called 1Keyboard that offers similar functionality across multiple devices. Apple’s getting into the game now with Universal Control, which promises to let you use a single keyboard and pointing device across multiple Macs and iPads. Apple first showed a MacBook Pro’s keyboard and trackpad taking over an iPad sitting nearby and then added an iMac to the mix, dragging a graphic from the iPad to the MacBook Pro and then over to an app on the iMac. It was pretty impressive, but the devil is in the details with such features, and we’ll see if it works as fluidly in the real world as it does in a canned demo.
Shortcuts Migrates from iOS to the Mac
Apple has been slow to modernize the Mac’s automation tools, with AppleScript and Automator stagnating for years, particularly in the wake of automation guru Sal Soghoian leaving (see “Sal Soghoian’s Automation Legacy,” 7 June 2018). Peter Lewis’s Keyboard Maestro has long been the mainstay of automation for Mac users, and while we don’t expect that to change, we’ll have a new tool to exploit: Shortcuts. That’s right, Apple is bringing the Shortcuts app from iOS to macOS 12 Monterey.
The editor looks as though it takes advantage of large windows on the Mac, which should make it a lot easier to edit complicated shortcuts than it is on the iPhone today. You may be able to treat the Mac as an editor for iPhone shortcuts since they automatically sync across all your devices. Shortcuts will be cross-platform, with M1-based Macs running iPhone and iPad shortcuts in their native apps and Intel-based Macs sending them to Mac Catalyst apps. It’s hard to imagine that all iPhone shortcuts will work on a Mac and vice versa, but some won’t make sense on the other platforms anyway.
You’ll be able to convert existing Automator workflows into shortcuts, and advanced users can enable AppleScript and shell script compatibility.
Apple made much of how it redesigned the look and feel of Safari, and we’ll have to see if those changes actually improve the user experience or not. However, there was one new feature that could be welcome for those of us who are inveterate tab collectors: tab groups. If you find yourself opening a bunch of tabs as part of a research project, you can add them to a group so you can focus on them at the appropriate time. And, perhaps more to the point, that hides tabs not in the current tab group so they don’t distract you or clutter Safari’s window. Tab groups sync across all your devices so you can access them from anywhere.
The question with tab groups is if managing them requires too much effort. The entire point of tabs is that they’re somewhat ephemeral, and if you wanted to make a collection, you could always create bookmarks. Will tab groups be a welcome organizational and focus tool, or will they require more interaction than tabs are worth?
Sharing Watch Health
A common reason to buy an Apple Watch is as a health-monitoring device for a loved one (see “I Bought an Apple Watch as a Gift. It Turned into a Tech-Support Setup Nightmare,” 28 October 2020). However, with iOS 15 and watchOS 8, the Apple Watch becomes a better gift because your loved ones can share their health data with you, including high heart rate, irregular heart rhythm, and low heart rate alerts. This data sharing could make it easier to take care of your elderly relatives—or help them take care of you.
Though an indispensable computing device for many, the iPad has long irked users because of features that did not work as well as they should or were glaringly absent. The main pain point has been multitasking. Slide Over and Split View are profoundly unintuitive and clunky to use.
What’s more, last year’s Worldwide Developer Conference infuriated many iPad users when iPadOS 14 did not get some of the marquee features in iOS 14. The most notable omissions were the App Library and the flexibility to place widgets on any Home Screen page instead of sequestering them in the sidebar.
In its WWDC 2021 keynote, Apple made amends. In iPadOS 15, multitasking will receive a significant update. And the iPad has finally gained those iOS 14 features, with some iPad-specific tweaks. Also, the Notes app got some new features.
Multitasking Finally Becomes Discoverable
Managing multiple windows on an iPad looks to be much easier. Apple added multitasking controls to the top of the screen that let you take any app fullscreen, or into Split View or a Slide Over view, with just a tap.
If you tap Split View, iPadOS temporarily pushes the app aside so you can pick a second app from anywhere (including the Dock) to complete the divided screen. This also happens if you swipe down on the top of an app to replace it in Split View.
Split View in iPadOS 15 also introduces the option to open a third window—such as a Mail message when that app is shown—in a centered, floating fashion. If you want to put that window into Slide Over or Split View, the aforementioned multitasking controls beckon.
You could, instead, minimize that floating window, which drops it into a new interface element called the Shelf that floats at the bottom of the screen like an app-specific Dock. The Shelf is where you’d find multiple open Safari or Pages windows, for instance, so you can switch among them. Use a finger flick to remove a window from the Shelf.
The App Switcher provides more multitasking mojo. With windows displayed in that view, you can drag one atop another to create a Split View group.
We’ll have to see how easy it is to use all these new features, but the simple move of providing visible multitasking controls should go a long way toward helping users make more of it than they do now.
Widgets and App Library
There isn’t a lot to say here. iPad users can now put their widgets anywhere, just like on the iPhone, by opening the widget gallery and dragging a widget to any Home Screen page.
iPadOS 15 provides a new, larger widget format that makes sense only on the larger iPad screen. Apps that support this larger widget format include Apple TV, Files, Game Center, and Photos—third-party apps will no doubt take advantage of it soon as well.
The App Library works as expected, with one iPad-specific enhancement—you can jump to the App Library by tapping an App Library icon at the right edge of the Dock.
As on the iPhone, you can add apps to a Home Screen page from the App Library, remove an app from a page so it’s only found in the App Library, and reorder or hide Home Screen pages. See “iOS 14’s App Library: The FAQ” (9 September 2020), “Five Tips for Easier Rearranging of iOS Apps” (22 September 2020), and “Manage iPhone Home Screen Apps in Bulk with iOS 14’s App Library” (19 April 2021).
iPad-Specific Features in Notes
Apple has tried to make the ubiquitous Notes app more capable with new organizational features, some drawing their inspiration from social media. Most of these are spread across Apple’s operating systems, but Quick Note seems designed for the iPad.
Quick Note lets you create a note without having to open the Notes app. Instead, drag diagonally upward from the iPad’s lower-right corner with your finger or the Apple Pencil to create a note. To dismiss the note, drag in the opposite direction.
Quick Note is aware of which app you have on the screen. If you create a note when a Safari page is shown, for instance, the note will contain that page’s URL. Tap the URL, and the site is embedded in the note with a picture. Visit that URL later, and the corresponding note pops up in the lower-right corner again.
You can also highlight text on a Safari page, and a link to that text is created in the note so you can refer back to that spot on the page later. You can create Quick Note links to third-party apps, such as restaurant listings in Yelp.
To scroll through previously created Quick Notes, swipe left or right on a displayed note to see the others. Or just open Notes to see your Quick Notes collected there.
In addition to Quick Notes, Apple has added a few organizational features:
- Tags: As in other apps and social services, tags (such as #julio) let you organize your notes. For navigation, Apple has added a tag browser.
- @Mentions: When you @mention someone in a note with a social media-style at symbol (such as @julio), that person gets a notification with a link to that note.
- Activity View: This view shows you what has changed in a shared note while you were away.
With iPadOS, Apple hasn’t made revolutionary iPad changes, but some of these will inspire hosannas from users long-frustrated by opaque interfaces and missing features. Multitasking improvements will go a long way to making the tablet more intuitive and less frustrating. Many iPad users will be thrilled that they can put widgets anywhere they please. The App Library isn’t as sexy, but neatniks will love how it lets them clean up their Home Screens and hide little-used apps. The improvements to Notes aren’t likely to draw converts from other note-taking apps but will be welcomed by devoted Notes users.
In short, Monday was a good day for iPad users, even if the changes were largely responding to past limitations.
Apple’s watchOS 8, unveiled during the virtual Worldwide Developers Conference, features a grab bag of improvements in health, communication, photos, home automation, and more. Though perhaps overshadowed by other WWDC announcements, these collectively do much to move the Apple Watch forward.
Apple rolled out sleep-tracking features in watchOS 7 last year (see “watchOS 7 Introduces Sleep Tracking, Handwashing Detection, and More,” 22 June 2020), and it’s building on this theme with watchOS 8. In addition to tracking metrics like time asleep, heart rate, and blood oxygen, the Apple Watch now monitors “sleeping respiratory rate,” the number of breaths per minute. The Apple Watch pulls this trick off thanks to its built-in accelerometer, and you can view the results in the Health app. You’ll receive an alert if something seems amiss in the sleep-breathing department.
To emphasize the utility of mindfulness in mental health, Apple has renamed the Breathe app to Mindfulness and added enhanced Breathe routines. New to the app are Reflect routines that supply you with short bits of text—such as “Recall a time recently when you felt a sense of calm. Bring that feeling into this moment.”—intended to put you in a positive frame of mind. The Breathe and Reflect sessions are enhanced by soothing animations, though we’d suggest that closing your eyes is more calming than holding your arm akimbo for a minute or more at a time to view the pretty graphics.
The Apple Watch is great for initiating a wide variety of workouts, and Apple has added two: Tai Chi and Pilates. For those willing to pay for Apple Fitness+, there are new workouts with Jeanette Jenkins (no, we don’t know who she is, but we understand she’s popular) along with workout playlists from the likes of Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Alicia Keys.
The Apple Watch’s tiny screen wouldn’t seem ideal for viewing photos, but Apple is making the most of it. Perhaps most notably, watchOS 8 includes a new Portraits watch face that turns portrait images of a friend or relative into “an immersive, multilayered effect.” When you spin the Digital Crown, it looks a bit like those 3D animated photos that keep popping up in your Facebook feed (see “Google and Facebook Use the iPhone’s Portrait Mode for Fun Effects,” 13 December 2018).
Apple also redesigned the Photos app with Memories highlights and Featured Photos along with a cool Mosaic layout. Plus, if you can navigate the tiny screen, you can share photos via Messages and Mail. It’s hard to get too excited about these changes, given that every Apple Watch owner has an iPhone that will be a far more effective platform for interacting with photos.
The Apple Watch offers several ways to send brief messages: Scribble, voice dictation, and emojis. Now, Apple lets you use the Digital Crown to position the cursor when editing messages dictated by voice. It’s better than nothing, but we can’t really see anyone using it except perhaps to correct a particularly egregious dictation fail.
Also, in a nod to the social age, Messages in watchOS 8 now provides a library of trending animated GIFs to express a feeling or opinion (such as a #facepalm) with a single moving image instead of a static emoji.
A redesigned Home app in watchOS 8 gives HomeKit users more options. If you have security cameras set up, you can view who is at the door or skulking in your alley right on your wrist. An Intercom feature lets you broadcast verbal messages to HomePods and other devices throughout your home or to individual rooms. Finally, the new Home app displays status symbols for your devices, much like Home does in iOS 14, and watchOS 8 suggests scenes to you based on the time of day.
It’s good to see Apple making HomeKit devices, scenes, and automations more accessible, although, in our experience, the HomePod is the killer device for working with home automation.
- Apple added the Contacts app to the Apple Watch. You can browse, add, share, and edit contacts right on your wrist.
- Multiple timers, previously exclusive to the HomePod, are now available on the Apple Watch. You can label timers (such as “Laundry Timer” or “Cooking Timer”) for repeat usage.
- The Always-On display in recent Apple Watch models is now supported by more apps, including Maps, Mindfulness, Now Playing, Phone, Podcasts, Stopwatch, Timers, and Voice Memos.
- A Find Devices app, mirroring a feature found on other Apple devices, helps users locate AirTags and other devices via the Find My network.
- A redesigned Music app lets users share songs, albums, and playlists via Messages and Mail. Apple also merged the features of the current Radio app into the Music app.
- The Weather app now offers severe-weather notifications and next-hour precipitation alerts. Apple also enhanced its complications.
- If you add a key to the Wallet app in iOS 15, you can unlock HomeKit locks and supported hotel rooms with your Apple Watch Series 6 and its support for Ultra Wideband. You can also access your digital ID from the Apple Watch when going through TSA checkpoints in the US.
While nearly all uses of Apple’s AirTag location trackers will be for legitimate purposes—finding keys, backpacks, and roving pets—there’s no ignoring the fact that they can and will be misused by some number of stalkers and other creeps. To mitigate such problems and deter this abusive intention, Apple built features into the AirTag ecosystem to alert you if you’re being tracked.
Apple offers two distinct tracking-deterrent features: safety alerts that notify people who are inadvertently carrying an AirTag with them and sounds that play after an AirTag has been away from its owner for at least 8 to 24 hours. The details surrounding the safety alerts have caused some confusion because the explanation on Apple’s AirTag support page is less precise than statements Apple representatives have made in interviews. We contacted Apple for clarification and obtained a little more detail. Apple released a statement on 3 June 2021 announcing additional changes and a notification alert app coming for Android users.
An AirTag provides remarkably precise, nearly continuous location information to its owner so long as the AirTag is near any other Apple device with the Find My network setting enabled in iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5, or macOS 11.3 Big Sur or later. That’s why Apple wants people to know when they’re being secretly tracked. However, the very nature of the Find My network both prevents certain kinds of seemingly obvious alerts and makes it likely others could pop up on way too many people’s iPhones and iPads. (See “The Two Faces of Find My,” 23 May 2021, and “13 AirTag Tracking Scenarios,” 15 May 2021.)
Apple’s design limits unwanted tracking notifications to these two kinds:
- Detected near you: If your iPhone or iPad determines that an AirTag separated from its owner is moving with you over time, it will display a safety alert in specific locations, as I explain below. A notification reading “AirTag Found Moving with You” appears on your device; tap it, and you get an “AirTag Detected Near You” sheet that lets you send a command using Bluetooth to play a sound on the AirTag or pause alerts. You might pause an alert if you borrowed an item with an AirTag and you’re aware of that. (Although we strongly recommend against using it, there’s a switch to disable safety alerts entirely in the Find My app’s Me tab.) Later this year, Apple will also release an app for Android users that, when installed, will provide them with similar alerts.
- Away from the owner for an extended period: An AirTag maintains an internal timer that starts counting upward whenever it’s away from its owner. At a random interval after 8 to 24 hours, the AirTag plays a sound. (This interval dropped from 3 days on 3 June 2021.) The sound recurs every so often thereafter.
In both cases, the AirTag continues to broadcast its identity, and all qualified devices nearby continue to relay it, stamped with their location. The only way to make an AirTag stop broadcasting is to remove its battery. (The bottom plate rotates freely from the top cover, allowing removal of the AirTag’s CR2032 button battery.)
Under the Hood
How does iOS or iPadOS or a future Android app know when an AirTag is moving with you, though? The Find My network relies on Apple’s devices and Find My items broadcasting a Bluetooth ID in a recognizable pattern that contains encrypted information about the transmitting hardware. This Bluetooth ID changes regularly to prevent people from tracking someone by recognizing a fixed Bluetooth ID associated with them, even if it’s encrypted. Apple doesn’t disclose how frequently the Bluetooth ID changes, but my guess is that it’s either once or twice daily based on other clues the company provides about persistence.
Apple’s support document on unwanted tracking with AirTags notes just, “To discourage tracking without your knowledge, Find My will notify you if an unknown AirTag is seen moving with you over time.” But Apple has now provided TidBITS with a little more specificity.
An “AirTag Found Moving with You” notification appears when your iPhone or iPad has picked up the same Bluetooth ID as you move from place to place over some unspecified period of time. In addition, one of the following conditions must also be true:
- You’ve arrived home, as determined by the address set for the Me card in Contacts.
- You’ve arrived at a “significant location,” explained below.
- It’s the end of the day (whatever that means), even if you haven’t gone home or to a significant location.
Apple hasn’t yet released details about when its forthcoming Android app will alert you.
What’s a “significant location?” Your iPhone and iPad track locations that they believe have some relevance to you, whether you’ve visited once or every day for a month. (I went once to a sushi restaurant for takeout weeks ago, and my iPhone decided that was significant.) You can see these in Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Significant Locations. On that screen, you can delete individual entries or clear all entries, although it would seem better to have more significant locations than fewer.
Along with the Find My network using these locations as endpoints at which to present you with AirTag safety alerts, Apple also uses significant locations to inform predictive traffic routing and build better Memories in Photos. They aren’t a big thing, but it’s worth knowing about them.
iOS and iPadOS store significant locations locally and sync them among your devices using end-to-end encryption; Apple says it doesn’t have direct access to this location data. Anyone tracking you without your permission doesn’t have access to these locations except by inference.
Pros and Cons
You can likely imagine both the reason for this set of choices and its drawbacks. If Apple notified people after a given period of time that a Bluetooth ID was moving with them anywhere, any AirTag separated from its owner on a bus, train, or airplane might prompt alerts on dozens of iPhones, iPads, and, later in the year, Android phones. Too many false positives would be annoying and would cause people to turn off the safety alerts.
However, this also means that if you’re being surveilled with an AirTag, it will pass along the coordinates of your home and significant locations even before it warns you about tracking. As far as we can tell—and Apple didn’t clarify this point further for us—the AirTag’s location continues to be relayed as long as the AirTag has power and nearby devices have an Internet connection.
As we’ve noted, there’s room in the Find My network system for more refinement and improvement. Fortunately, Apple confirmed what we had read earlier: the company can tune the system’s behavior without requiring changes to the AirTag hardware. In fact, as we were finishing this article, Apple’s changes to the AirTag’s internal alert timer and plan to release an Android app indicate that the company is committed to further dialing in changes to deter unwanted tracking based on location and timing.