Will Apple’s U1 chip explode this year?

After years of education, we are no strangers to Apple’s introduction and popularization of new technologies. For example, the iMac wasn’t the first device to use USB, but it drove adoption of the standard. Multi-touch displays also existed before the iPhone, but they were the first to offer a commercial product based on the technology. However, sometimes these techniques take a while to implement. Apple’s investment in UWB in recent years is a good example.

Like other technologies, UWB is not a new concept, but it has not really found a real place in the consumer market. Apple released the iPhone 11 series in 2019, which included a custom chip called the U1. During the introduction, Apple talks about the amazing properties of the U1 and how it can be used to not only track the location of objects with astonishing accuracy, but even point you in the right direction.

But almost a year and a half later, U1 is still a technology that doesn’t have many applications. Yes, it’s built into AirDrop to show you which other devices are closest, but that’s only for other U1-enabled iPhones, and it’s more of a proof-of-concept than an actual feature touted. Other than that, there really isn’t much out there. With some U1-enabled technologies emerging, 2021 promises to be a breakthrough year for this technology.

 With or without U1

Throughout last year, Apple seemed so confident in the U1’s future potential that it kept building it into its products. The iPhone 11 successor to the iPhone 12 series not only has the U1 chip, but the Apple Watch Series 6 and HomePod mini released last fall both included the U1 chip.

In introducing the devices, Apple didn’t spend a lot of time talking about what it might use these chips for, except for one simple example: a replacement for the Handoff feature, which lets you stream audio from your iPhone simply by holding down to a nearby HomePod. The current version of this feature uses another technology, NFC (the same technology used by Apple Pay), but it is sensitive and unreliable. The U1 version was supposed to be better…but when the original iOS14 came out, it didn’t get an upgrade. Updates that include the update have only reached beta levels until now, so it could still be weeks or a month away.

However, if Apple continues to embed the U1 in its other products, it will be a real testament to their commitment to UWB. But the update to the iPad Air released last fall didn’t include the technology, and the iPad Pro is widely expected to be updated this spring. It will tell if it includes the U1, given last year’s trivial update. (Or similarly tell it if it doesn’t.)

Likewise, Macs built on Apple’s custom silicon, the M1, don’t support Ultra Wideband, and it’s unclear if the company doesn’t think the technology will work on these devices at all, or if they just want to save it for future updates.

 Just mark it

While the U1 is well-proven, the U1-based killer is always something Apple hasn’t released yet.

There have been a lot of rumors and leaks about something dubbed “AirTags.” Existing models of these key fobs often rely on other radio technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy variants. UWB promises to make finding devices more precise; it can also operate faster than Bluetooth, work through walls and not interfere with Wi-Fi, and vice versa.

Plus, Apple’s variants, and possibly compatible third-party versions, will also be able to take advantage of Apple’s extensive Find My network, which uses Apple devices to anonymously find all nearby missing objects and report their location.

In short, AirTag is exactly what the U1 was designed for. By every indication, the release date is getting closer, if not in 2021.

  Boundary of U1

Apple has explored one or two other features that could take advantage of the U1’s proximity-sensing capabilities. For example, it’s supported by the car key feature, which allows newer iPhones to act as a way to open your vehicle, allowing your car to automatically unlock when you get close enough.

But in theory, the U1 could also help with more mundane problems, like giving the device making a notification more context based on how close it is to you. Or determine which device should handle Siri requests. It could be used to help bring you into indoor spaces, or to bolster Apple’s ambitions in augmented reality by helping Apple locate objects in space more precisely.

In short, there’s a good chance the U1 chip will unlock. Apple clearly believes in that potential, as it pours resources into a chip designed only for ultra-wideband, and then builds that chip into many of its most popular devices. All we have to do now is to convince the masses.


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