Apple accidentally confirms the existence of an unreleased product, AirTags

Whoops! Apple inadvertently revealed the existence of an unreleased product, AirTags, in a support video uploaded to its YouTube account today. The video, “How to erase your iPhone,” offers a tutorial about resetting an iPhone to factory settings. Around the 1:43 mark, it instructs users to turn off “Find my iPhone” as part of the process. On the Settings page that then appears, another option for “Enable Offline Finding” is shown, and beneath that, the text references AirTags by name.

Specifically, it says: “Offline finding enables this device and AirTags to be found when not connected to Wi-Fi or cellular.”

The discovery was first spotted by the eagle-eyed blog Appleosophy.

Apple has since pulled the video. (A copy of the video is embedded below.)

AirTags, essentially Apple’s Tile competitor, were already known to be in the works. Based on details and assets found in Apple’s iOS code, AirTags are believed to be small tracking tiles with Bluetooth connectivity that can be used to find lost items — just like Tile.

The difference is that Apple’s AirTags will benefit from deeper integration with iOS, including within its “Find My” app. There, the tags will show up in a new “Items” tab allowing you to keep track of items that tend to get lost or stolen — like your keys, wallet or even your bike.

According to reports from MacRumors, the tags will feature a removable CR2032 coin cell battery, also similar to Tile.

Apple’s intention to copy Tile’s concept has not gone unnoticed by Tile.

The company on Wednesday told a congressional panel that Apple’s anticompetitive behavior has “gotten worse, not better.”

During the hearing, Tile referenced Apple’s plans to integrate its own product into the “Find My” app. Tile and other Bluetooth trackers won’t be able to do the same. They also have to ask for background location access repeatedly, while Apple’s AirTags, presumably, will not. That gives Apple’s own product an advantage as it owns the platform.

Apple has been asked for comment.

Image credits: Apple, via YouTube; MacRumors 

Apple agrees to settlement of up to $500 million from lawsuit alleging it throttled older phones

Apple Inc. has agreed to pay a settlement of up to $500 million, following a lawsuit accusing the company of intentionally slowing down the performance of older phones to encourage customers to buy newer models or fresh batteries.

The preliminary proposed class action lawsuit was disclosed Friday night and would see Apple pay consumers $25 per-phone, as reported by Reuters.

Any settlement needs to be approved by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila, who oversaw the case brought in San Jose, Calif.

For consumers, the $25 payout may seem a little low as a new iPhone can cost anywhere from $649 to $849 (for a lower-end model). The cost may be varied depending on how many people sue and the company is set to pay at least $310 million under the terms of the settlement.

For its part, Apple is denying wrongdoing in the case and said it was only agreeing to avoid the cost and burden associated with the lawsuit.

Any U.S. owner of the iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s, 6s Plus, 7 Plus or SE that ran on iOS 10.2.1 or any of the later operating systems are covered by the settlement. Users of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus which ran iOS 11.2 or later before Dec. 21, 2017 are also covered by the settlement.

Apple customers said their phone performance slowed down after they installed Apple software updates. The customers contend that Apple’s software updates intentionally degraded the performance of older models to encourage customers to unnecessarily upgrade to newer models or install new batteries.

Lawyers for Apple said that the problems were mainly due to high usage, temperature changes and other issues and that its engineers tried to address the problems as quickly as possible.

In February, Apple was fined $27 million by the French government for the same issue.

As we reported at the time:

A couple of years ago, Apple  released an iOS update (10.2.1 and 11.2) that introduced a new feature for older devices. If your battery is getting old, iOS would cap peak performances as your battery might not be able to handle quick peaks of power draw. The result of those peaks is that your iPhone might shut down abruptly.

While that feature is technically fine, Apple failed to inform users that it was capping performances on some devices. The company apologized and introduced a new software feature called “Battery Health,” which lets you check the maximum capacity of your battery and if your iPhone can reach peak performance.

And that’s the issue here. Many users may have noticed that their phone would get slower when they play a game, for instance. But they didn’t know that replacing the battery would fix that. Some users may have bought new phones even though their existing phone was working fine.

Shares of Apple were up over 9% today in a general market rally.

Apple has blocked Clearview AI’s iPhone app for violating its rules

An iPhone app built by controversial facial recognition startup Clearview AI has been blocked by Apple, effectively banning the app from use.

Apple confirmed to TechCrunch that the startup “violated” the terms of its enterprise developer program.

The app allows its users — which the company claims it serves only law enforcement officers — to use their phone camera or upload a photo to search its database of 3 billion photos. But BuzzFeed News revealed that the company — which claims to only cater to law enforcement users — also includes many private-sector users, including Macy’s, Walmart and Wells Fargo.

Clearview AI has been at the middle of a media — and legal — storm since its public debut in The New York Times last month. The company scrapes public photos from social media sites, drawing ire from the big tech giants that claim Clearview AI misused their services. But it’s also gained attention from hackers. On Wednesday, Clearview AI confirmed a data breach in which its client list was stolen.

The public Amazon S3 page containing the iPhone app. (Image: TechCrunch)

TechCrunch found Clearview AI’s iPhone app on an public Amazon S3 storage bucket on Thursday, despite a warning on the page that the app is “not to be shared with the public.”

The page asks users to “open this page on your iPhone” to install and approve the company’s enterprise certificate, allowing the app to run.

But this, according to Apple’s policies, is prohibited if the app’s users are outside of Clearview AI’s organization.

Clearview AI’s use of an enterprise certificate on an iPhone. (Image: TechCrunch)

Enterprise certificates are issued by Apple to allow companies to build and approve iPhone and iPad apps designed for internal company use only. It’s common for these certificates to be used to test apps internally before they are pushed out to the App Store. Apple maintains a strict set of rules on use of enterprise certificates, and says they cannot be used by consumers. But there have been cases of abuse.

Last year, TechCrunch exclusively reported that both Facebook and Google were using their enterprise certificates for consumer-facing apps in an effort to bypass Apple’s App Store. Apple revoked the tech giants’ enterprise certificates, disabling the infracting app but also any other app that relied on the certificate, including their catering and lunch menu apps.

The app was labeled as “beta” — typically a pre-release or a test version of the app. Besides this claim, there is no evidence to suggest this app was not used by Clearview AI customers.

Clearview AI chief executive Hoan Ton-That told TechCrunch: “We are in contact with Apple and working on complying with their terms and conditions.”

A brief analysis of the app through network traffic tools and disassembly tools shows it works largely in the same way as Clearview AI’s Android app, which was discovered by Gizmodo on Thursday.

Like the Android app, a user needs a Clearview AI-approved username and password to use the app.

Do phones need to fold?

As Samsung (re)unveiled its clamshell folding phone last week, I kept seeing the same question pop up amongst my social circles: why?

I was wondering the same thing myself, to be honest. I’m not sure even Samsung knows; they’d win me over by the end, but only somewhat. The halfway-folded, laptop-style “Flex Mode” allows you to place the phone on a table for hands-free video calling. That’s pretty neat, I guess. But… is that it?

The best answer to “why?” I’ve come up with so far isn’t a very satisfying one: Because they can (maybe). And because they sort of need to do something.

Let’s time-travel back to the early 2000s. Phones were weird, varied and no manufacturers really knew what was going to work. We had basic flip phones and Nokia’s indestructible bricks, but we also had phones that swiveled, slid and included chunky physical keyboards that seemed absolutely crucial. The Sidekick! LG Chocolate! BlackBerry Pearl! Most were pretty bad by today’s standards, but it was at least easy to tell one model from the next.

(Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

Then came the iPhone in 2007; a rectangular glass slab defined less by physical buttons and switches and more by the software that powered it. The device itself, a silhouette. There was hesitation to this formula, initially; the first Android phones shipped with swiveling keyboards, trackballs and various sliding pads. As iPhone sales grew, everyone else’s buttons, sliders and keyboards were boiled away as designers emulated the iPhone’s form factor. The best answer, it seemed, was a simple one.

Twelve years later, everything has become the same. Phones have become… boring. When everyone is trying to build a better rectangle, the battle becomes one of hardware specs. Which one has the fastest CPU? The best camera?

Do phones need to fold?

As Samsung (re)unveiled its clamshell folding phone last week, I kept seeing the same question pop up amongst my social circles: why?

I was wondering the same thing myself, to be honest. I’m not sure even Samsung knows; they’d win me over by the end, but only somewhat. The halfway-folded, laptop-style “Flex Mode” allows you to place the phone on a table for hands-free video calling. That’s pretty neat, I guess. But… is that it?

The best answer to “why?” I’ve come up with so far isn’t a very satisfying one: Because they can (maybe). And because they sort of need to do something.

Let’s time-travel back to the early 2000s. Phones were weird, varied and no manufacturers really knew what was going to work. We had basic flip phones and Nokia’s indestructible bricks, but we also had phones that swiveled, slid and included chunky physical keyboards that seemed absolutely crucial. The Sidekick! LG Chocolate! BlackBerry Pearl! Most were pretty bad by today’s standards, but it was at least easy to tell one model from the next.

(Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

Then came the iPhone in 2007; a rectangular glass slab defined less by physical buttons and switches and more by the software that powered it. The device itself, a silhouette. There was hesitation to this formula, initially; the first Android phones shipped with swiveling keyboards, trackballs and various sliding pads. As iPhone sales grew, everyone else’s buttons, sliders and keyboards were boiled away as designers emulated the iPhone’s form factor. The best answer, it seemed, was a simple one.

Twelve years later, everything has become the same. Phones have become… boring. When everyone is trying to build a better rectangle, the battle becomes one of hardware specs. Which one has the fastest CPU? The best camera?

How companies are working around Apple’s ban on vaping apps

Apple banned vaping apps in November 2019. Since then, the company has said very little about its decision, leaving many companies upset and confused about its blanket prohibition.

Three months later, companies are working around Apple’s ban. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Apple’s wide-sweeping ban on vaping affected apps from Juul, Pax and many others, including apps that calculate electrical resistance because they can be used to build vape components. It appears to have hit the cannabis industry at a higher rate than tobacco, as few tobacco vapes have a companion application.

The removal was sudden but not unexpected, given the climate at the time. In 2019, the vaping industry suffered a crisis as the Centers for Disease Control stumbled through a health scare caused by illicit products. Industry experts quickly identified a filler additive as the source of the illnesses, but these reports were ignored for months, creating widespread panic. Consumer sentiment promptly settled on the conclusion that all vapes are harmful, even when clear data shows the opposite. Vapes sourced through legal means are proven to be safer alternatives than other consumption methods.

It’s important to note Apple didn’t disable the apps or force the removal from phones. Apps that had already been downloaded continued to work, though they could not be updated.

Apple fined $27 million in France for throttling old iPhones without telling users

France’s competition watchdog DGCCRF announced earlier today that Apple will pay a $27.4 million (€25 million) fine due to an iOS update that capped performance of aging devices. The company will also have to display a statement on its website for a month.

A couple of years ago, Apple released an iOS update (10.2.1 and 11.2) that introduced a new feature for older devices. If your battery is getting old, iOS would cap peak performances as your battery might not be able to handle quick peaks of power draw. The result of those peaks is that your iPhone might shut down abruptly.

While that feature is technically fine, Apple failed to inform users that it was capping performances on some devices. The company apologized and introduced a new software feature called “Battery Health”. It lets you check the maximum capacity of your battery and if your iPhone can reach peak performance.

And that’s the issue here. Many users may have noticed that their phone would get slower when they play a game for instance. But they didn’t know that replacing the battery would fix that. Some users may have bought new phones even though their existing phone was working fine.

France’s DGCCRF also notes that iPhone users can’t downgrade to a previous version of iOS, which means that iPhone users had no way to lift the performance capping feature. “Failing to inform consumers represented a misleading business practice using omission,” the French authority writes.

Apple accepted to settle by paying a €25 million fine and recognizing its wrongdoing with a statement on its website.

Foxconn and Fiat Chrysler partner to develop EVs and an “internet of vehicles” business

Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwanese electronics giant best known for its iPhone manufacturing contract, is forming a joint venture with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to build electric vehicles in China.

The joint venture was disclosed in a regulatory filing. Nikkei was first to report the joint venture.

According to the filing, each party will own 50% of the venture to develop and manufacture electric vehicles and engage in an IOV, what Foxconn parent company Hon Hai calls the “internet of vehicles” business. Hon Hai’s direct shareholding in the subsidiary will not exceed 40%, the filing says.

The venture will initially focus on making electric vehicles for China. But these vehicles could be exported at a later date, according to Foxconn.

The wording in the regulatory filing suggests these will be new vehicles that are designed and built from the ground up and not a project to electrify any of the vehicles in FCA’s current portfolio.

The venture could give FCA a better path to capturing more business in China, the world’s largest market for electric vehicles.

Foxconn has invested in other electric vehicle ventures before, although this appears to be the first tie-up in which the company will develop and build the product. EV startup Byton was originally started as Future Mobility Corporation as a joint venture between Harmony Auto, Tencent and Foxconn. And Foxconn is also an investor in XPeng Motors, the Chinese electric vehicle startup that recently raised a fresh injection of $400 million in capital and has taken on Xiaomi  as a strategic investor.

The US government should stop demanding tech companies compromise on encryption

In a tweet late Tuesday, President Trump criticized Apple for refusing “to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.” Trump was specifically referring to a locked iPhone that belonged to a Saudi airman who killed three U.S sailors in an attack on a Florida base in December.

It’s only the latest example of the government trying to gain access to a terror suspect’s device it claims it can’t access because of the encryption that scrambles the device’s data without the owner’s passcode.

The government spent the past week bartering for Apple’s help. Apple said it had given to investigators “gigabytes of information,” including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.” In every instance it received a legal demand, Apple said it “responded with all of the information” it had. But U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not giving investigators “any substantive assistance” in unlocking the phone.

This new wireless charger from Zens nearly fulfills the promise of Apple’s AirPower

Apple’s cancellation of its AirPower wireless charging mat was one of the company’s few big public flubs, but the concept behind the cancelled product remains attractive: A wireless charging pad that supports multiple devices, and that isn’t picky about how you set down your device in order to make a connection. Wireless charging accessory maker Zens has actually created such a device with the Liberty Wireless Charger, and while it doesn’t offer everything that AirPower claimed to be able to do, it’s a big step up from current wireless chargers and a a great companion for iPhone, AirPods and Apple Watch.

Coils, coils coils

The Zens Liberty is special because of how it uses the wireless charging coils that are responsible for the charging ability of any wireless chargers – wound circular loops of copper cable that provide the induction power received by devices like the latest iPhones and AirPods charging case. Zens has stacked 16 such coils in an overlapping array – which, conveniently, you can see in pretty much full detail in the transparent glass edition charger that’s available today alongside the fabric-covered version.

These overlapping coils are the key to the unique abilities of the Zens Liberty: Specifically, their arrangement means you can place your devices down in basically any orientation and they’ll begin charging right away. Most charging pads, by comparison, have one, two or sometimes three coils placed in specific locations, meaning you have to make sure your device is properly situated above one to actually get it to start charging. If you’ve been using wireless chargers for any length of time, you’ve probably had the unfortunate opportunity to get this orientation match-up wrong, resulting in a phone that didn’t charge at all when you wake up the next morning.

Zens’ Liberty does indeed solve this annoyance, and I found I was able to put devices down basically however I wanted them and have them charge up.

Flexible seating for two

Up to two Qi-compatible devices can be charged at once, and they’ll each work with up to 15w of power, which is at the top end of what any current devices support. I tested it out with Android phones, iPhones and AirPods (plus AirPods Pro) and found that all worked without issue and basically however I wanted to lay them across the surface. The caveats here are that you should think of the areas around the edges of the charger as basically non-active, so stay around an inch in from the outer surface and you should be fine.

This flexibility may not seem like much (why not just pay attention when you’re putting your devices on a more traditional charger?) but it actually is a very nice convenience. Just that small assurance that you can easily put your device down on the Liberty’s generous surface and not worry too much about checking whether a connection was actually made is a big relief, when you charge a device as much as you do your iPhone or your AirPods.

Apple Watch, too

The Zens Liberty can’t charge the Apple Watch on the pad, the way that Apple had advertised the cancelled AirPower would’ve been able to. But with an accessory, the pad can become a truly all-in one charging station for your mobile Apple kit, Watch included. An officially supported Apple Watch charger with a USB A connector on one end is an add-on option that Zens offers, and it conveniently slots right into a USB port present on the Zens Liberty (and protected/hidden by a rubber flap when not in use).

This port actually supports any kind of USB powered device, so you can also use it with a cable to charge another gadget, like an iPad for instance. But it’s perfectly designed for the new Zens Apple Watch charger accessory, which comes with a little plastic shelf that snaps in to support your Watch when it’s charging. It provides just the right angle for Apple Watch’s Nightstand mode, and is a necessary addition for anyone looking for an all-in one solution.

Bottom line

The Zens Liberty is the best all-around charging option available currently, based on my testing so far. It’s also powered by an included 60w USB-C charger, which comes with two international plug adapters that makes it a great travel brick for other devices, too. That means you can also use standard USB-C power bricks with it, too, rather than requiring some kind of proprietary power adapter.

There are some downsides to keep in mind, however: You should realize that this is a big charger, for instance. That’s good in that it supports multiple devices easily, but it’s also going to take up more space than your average wireless charger. It’s also thick, which allows for the stacked coils and cooling system (this is the only wireless charger I’ve used that has clear and obvious vents, for instance).

That said, the Zens Liberty makes good on the true promise of wireless charging, which is convenience and flexibility. And it’s well-designed and aesthetically attractive, in both the fabric-covered and striking transparent glass designs. Zens is now accepting pre-orders for these, with shipping starting sometime this month, and the standard fabric version retails for 139.99 ($155 USD) while the glass edition is €179.99 ($199 USD), and the Apple Watch USB stick sells for €39.99 ($44.50 USD).