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iPhone 11 won't charge your AirPods, and that's OK

Apple's latest phones don't do reverse charging. No big deal.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max

The iPhone 11 Pro Max

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

Apple's spotty reputation for wireless charging didn't get any shinier when the iPhone 11 family arrived on Tuesday without reverse charging, the ability to charge other devices by setting them atop your phone. Luckily for Apple, that omission probably doesn't matter much.

Wireless charging is a useful mobile technology, but one that Apple hasn't made a splash in. iPhones didn't get wireless charging until well after rivals like Samsung, and Apple scrapped its AirPower charging station after more than a year of difficulty. 

The consumer electronics giant never confirmed or promised reverse charging would come with the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro smartphones. But expectations had mounted with rumors that Apple planned to do so. Rival Samsung built reverse charging into its Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note, letting those phones charge devices like earbuds, smartwatches and other phones. The South Korean phone maker even used reverse charging as a selling point in TV commercials.

"Apple was late to the wireless charging party," said Moor Insights and Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. "There is a learning curve here and this is what I believe is going on at Apple."

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Wireless charging is convenient, letting you top up your battery by dropping your phone onto a pad on your desk or car console. Sure, charging cables aren't the end of the world, but there's a liberation that comes from just picking up your phone and setting it down, especially if you do that a lot during the day. So there's no surprise that Apple, long an advocate for technology that makes its products easy to use, is a supporter.

Breaking the charging standards gridlock

Wireless charging technology was hobbled for years by competing standards. Along with Qi, there was the Power Matters Alliance and the Alliance For Wireless Power. That posed problems for anyone who wanted to use the technology: You'd have to read a lot of fine print before knowing whether your phone would work with your pad.

Apple gets credit for helping break the gridlock when it embraced the Qi standard for its iPhone X and iPhone 8 in 2017.

"Since the market was essentially waiting for Apple to resolve a standards war, the wait didn't hurt Apple much," said Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart.

Hopes were high for AirPower

Apple announced its AirPower charging pad in 2017 but canceled it the next year.

CNET

Things went better with the iPhone X's wireless charging than with the all-purpose charging pad Apple debuted at the same 2017 launch event. It was designed to charge an iPhone, an Apple Watch and a pair of AirPods at the same time.

The demise of the AirPower had to have stung, though. "After much effort, we've concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards, and we have canceled the project," Apple said in 2018.

Happily for wireless charging fans, there are abundant charging pads on the market, even if they don't support the Apple Watch's proprietary wireless charging mechanism.

Reverse charging isn't awesome

It isn't clear what exactly is going on with reverse charging in the iPhone. Apple executives didn't mention it at all during the iPhone 11 launch event. Apple didn't respond to a request for comment.

Still, the absence of reverse charging likely won't hurt Apple. It's very slow to charge and hurts the battery life of phones, which is already under pressure, said IHS Markit analyst Gerrit Schneemann. The heat from reverse charging means extra engineering challenges, said Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin. 

And, frankly, reverse charging is something few of us really need. Sure, it's flashy. But it's just not that useful.

"It's not something you would use frequently, just in emergencies or odd situations," said Forrester analyst Frank Gillett. "Reverse charging is somewhere between nice to have and a gimmick."