Why Apple was right to scrap AirPower [Opinion]


Apple hasn't given up on wireless charging pads.
Photo: Apple

Let me be among the first to thank Apple for killing the wireless charging pad known as AirPower.

While tech commentators try to rank this failure against other doomed Apple products, I feel grateful that Cupertino pulled the plug. AirPower, an ambitious attempt to use multiple coils to charge an iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods, was a public health hazard.

Apple did not say as much — never does, really — when it put AirPower to rest last Friday. In its most recent form, AirPower did not live up to the company’s high standards, according to the statement. This was a rare admission for Apple, where “no comment” sometimes seems as important as chip architecture.

We may never know why Apple pushed a design many of its own engineers reportedly argued would not work.

AirPower’s slow road to nowhere

Apple introduced AirPower at a product launch in 2017, with plans to release the wireless charging mat a short time later to work with the iPhone X. Apple left users waiting all last year, with no word of a release date. Finally, early this year, Apple seemed poised for AirPower’s launch. A beta version of iOS 12.2, released just 10 days before AirPower’s obituary, even hinted at support for the doomed charger.

Last week’s admission that AirPower will never launch came as a bit of a shocker. Apple, already having a bad week after a lackluster showcase of its upcoming Apple TV+ and Apple News+ services, was jeered by many on social media and the tech press for the failure of AirPower.

Still, it’s far better for Apple to suffer a little egg on its face now than to deal with the kind of PR crisis Samsung faced in 2016. That year, Samsung was forced to recall all 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 phablets after a flurry of reports of the devices exploding, including on flights, and causing injuries. Faulty batteries were ultimately to blame, but Samsung was slow to act as reports began to surface.

AirPower and its obstacles

AirPower kept running into problems with overheating and high levels of electromagnetic interference, wrote Craig Lloyd on iFixit.

Wireless chargers use electromagnetic induction introduced through a wire coil, which must be matched up to a coil in each device. A charging pad draws current from the wall to create an electromagnetic field.

Third-party charging pads for iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods utilize a coil for each device. Users generally must move their devices around until they find the exact right location to begin charging.

But Apple wanted a charging pad that didn’t require such precise positioning of the device. So it designed a mat with several overlapping coils.

“However, the electricity being transmitted to your phone isn’t perfectly clean or ideal,” Lloyd wrote. “It generates some noise, which can interfere with other wireless devices. That’s why the FCC (and regulatory bodies in other countries) set strict limits on wireless emissions.

“Noise from a single coil might not be a problem, but each charging coil generates a slightly different waveform. When those waves overlap, the constructive interference intensifies their strength. Just like when two ocean waves collide and combine their height, radio frequencies can combine their intensity as they interact.”

Potential electronics and health problems

William Lumpkins, vice president of engineering for O & S Services, told Lloyd the obstacles in the Apple design likely created colliding harmonics that produced “really powerful signals in the air. And that can be difficult — that can stop someone’s pacemaker if it’s too high of a level. Or it could short-circuit someone’s hearing aid.”

All that power, too, may explain the reports of overheating, he said.

Lumpkins speculated that Apple probably got AirPower to function, but couldn’t limit the electromagnetic interference to meet EU or FCC rules that limit exposure to radiofrequency radiation.

For all Apple does to nurture a connection with the people who use its products, the company’s silence when it comes to problems can feel off-putting. Cupertino doesn’t like to admit when a new iPhone or iPad bends. The company rarely apologizes as it did in 2017 for an iOS update that throttled performance of older iPhones. (Apple denied it was trying to force users to upgrade.)

In the case of AirPower, Apple apologized for disappointing its users and moved on.

Apple is rarely first to bring a product to market. Maybe this is a case that proves the delay is worth it.

In the end, it’s silly to get worked up about AirPower’s demise.

Nobody died. And it won’t kill us to continue plugging in our devices to charge them. (Plus, if you really need to go wireless, you’ve got options.)