At the unveiling of the iPhone 7 in September 2016, Apple design chief Jonathan Ive declared it the beginning of a “wireless future — a future where all of your devices intuitively connect”.
The first steps toward that future were the iPhone’s new wireless charging feature, which used the Qi standard, and Apple’s new Bluetooth earbuds, AirPods.
AirPods have been a huge success, with fans hailing them as a cultural phenomenon akin to the iPod’s iconic white headphones.
However, there has been turbulence on the path to Sir Jonathan’s untethered future. Last month’s cancellation of Apple’s AirPower wireless charging mat was a painful moment for a company that prides itself on creating technology that “just works”.
AirPower was unveiled in September 2017, alongside the tenth-anniversary iPhone X, as part of one of Apple’s biggest product launch events for years. The central pitch behind AirPower was that it could wirelessly charge three devices simultaneously — an iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods. It promised to be an essential desk or bedside-table accessory for any Apple addict.
But while the latest iPhones can typically be ordered within days of the new upgrades being unveiled on stage, AirPower’s release was slated vaguely for sometime in 2018. By the end of last year, Apple had gone ominously quiet on AirPower. Most mentions of the product disappeared from its website. Many Apple fans felt deflated, assuming AirPower had been quietly canned.
Then last month, AirPower suddenly made a reappearance — on the packaging for the new AirPods. The second generation of the popular headphones now sported a case that could be charged wirelessly. An illustration on the AirPods box clearly showed them sitting on the clean oval outline of AirPower.
But those hopes were soon dashed. Apple announced on a Friday afternoon that AirPower had been cancelled, after all.
“After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project,” said Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice-president of hardware engineering. “We apologise to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward.”
Most people never hear about the countless would-be innovations that failed to graduate from Apple’s R&D labs — a key reason for the obsessive secrecy that Apple believes is essential to preserving its mystique.
So Apple critics seized on its unusual own-goal with AirPower. Ken Segall, a tech marketer turned author who worked on several of Apple’s ad campaigns, decried “a fiasco beyond imagination”.
“AirPower is not your stereotypical screwup. It’s something far grander,” he wrote in a blog post. “Never in history has Apple announced a product, gone silent about it for 18 months, and then killed it before it ever shipped.”
Apple has not provided any detailed explanation of AirPower’s cancellation but analysts and engineers have speculated that it failed to overcome issues with excessive heat and wireless interference.
All wireless chargers rely on inductive coils to transfer electricity from one device to another. Coils inside both the charger and the phone must be closely aligned for charging to occur, which is the reason behind a common complaint about charging mats being fiddly and unreliable to use.
Designs in patent filings from Apple point to more than a dozen overlapping coils inside a single AirPower mat, which could alleviate the need for such precise placement. But such a design could also create multiple “harmonic frequencies” which could cause electromagnetic interference with devices such as pacemakers, according to iFixit, which sells tools and manuals for consumers to repair their own electronics.
“What they wanted to do was physically possible — and they surely had it working in the lab — but they couldn’t consistently meet the rigorous transmission requirements that are designed to keep us safe from our gadgets,” suggested iFixit in a blog post.
Another problem may have been with overheating — not just of the iPhone, AirPods or Watch, whose batteries can be put under strain by excessive heat, but also of nearby metal items such as coins or keys.
Another Apple patent filing warned that keys could be caught in “eddy currents that result from [a wireless charger’s] oscillating magnetic field” in other manufacturers’ products. That patent filing shows that Apple believed it had created a technique for overcoming heat transference but AirPower’s cancellation suggests it may not have worked as well as its engineers had initially hoped.
For Apple’s critics, debugging what went wrong with AirPower is about more than just the technical details — it seems to be the most extreme example in a pattern of product delays, including the original AirPods and the HomePod speaker.
“Naively, I expect Apple-level engineers to have a pretty good grasp of what is possible and what is not,” said Mr Segall, “and to have that grasp long before Tim Cook goes on stage to announce the product.”
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