RIP, AirPower: A brief history of Apple's doomed charging pad

Analysis: AirPower was an Apple rarity -- a pre-announced product that was eventually cancelled before it ever saw the light of day.

Justin Jaffe Managing editor
Justin Jaffe is the Managing Editor for CNET Money. He has more than 20 years of experience publishing books, articles and research on finance and technology for Wired, IDC and others. He is the coauthor of Uninvested (Random House, 2015), which reveals how financial services companies take advantage of customers -- and how to protect yourself. He graduated from Skidmore College with a B.A. in English Literature, spent 10 years in San Francisco and now lives in Portland, Maine.
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Eighteen months after announcing a device that would simultaneously and wirelessly charge multiple Apple products, Apple has officially killed AirPower. The company released a short statement, saying that "AirPower will not achieve our high standards, and we have cancelled the project."

In retrospect, it's easy to see the red flags.  Apple  introduced its AirPower wireless charging mat with a highly unusual "sneak peek," at the tail end of its Sept. 12, 2017 keynote

Read: AirPower's death may be the best thing for you (and your iPhone)

It's not like Apple to show off a half-baked product. And though Apple VP Phil Schiller had just introduced the innovative iPhone X (and more derivative iPhone 8 and 8 Plus), his AirPower pitch was striking for its aspirational tone. Schiller said that he thought Apple could make the wireless charging experience better and that the company "wants to create something that all of us would want to use."  

That something was a wireless charging mat that could juice up multiple Apple products -- an iPhone, an  Apple Watch  and some  AirPods  -- at the same time. And even better, the device would help devices communicate with each other to manage power consumption. "This is not possible with current standards," Schiller remarked, "but our team knows how to do this." 

He said that Apple would launch the product in 2018.

Eighteen months later, Apple has been forced to admit that, no, it doesn't know how to do this. 

Read: Apple AirPower is dead, but these alternatives are probably better anyway

Of course, it's not unusual for tech companies to announce products that, for one reason or another, never hit store shelves. In fact, much of what we see at CES every year becomes vaporware. But Apple -- in the rare cases where it pre-announces products at all -- usually does exactly what it says it's going to do when it says it's going to do it. The iPhone, iPad and Apple TV were all unveiled months before they launched, for instance.

Watch this: AirPower: Apple's charge-everything tech

That's why the extended absence of  AirPower  was so baffling, and why Apple's extended silence generated an air of suspense rare for charging accessories. The company hosted four major events in 2018, two of which featured new phones and watches -- products supposedly compatible with AirPower. After each event, we wondered, where is AirPower? 

That bewilderment continued into 2019. Just this month, Apple announced two new iPads and new iMacs. They were followed by a slew of new services: an updated Apple News that aggregates digital periodicals is available now, and the Apple TV Channels streaming service, a premium gaming service called Apple Arcade and even a new credit card are all said to be coming later this year. But still, no AirPower.

In the meantime, Apple introduced a lot of products that support wireless charging: the iPhone 8iPhone 8 PlusiPhone XiPhone XRiPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. The Apple Watch Series 3 and Apple Watch Series 4, meanwhile, do not work with Qi chargers, which only increased excitement about the promise of Apple's homegrown device, which would do double duty. 

The new AirPods, which also arrived in the past week, seemed to seal Apple's wireless charging bona fides: the second-generation AirPods could be purchased with a wireless charger, and owners of the old AirPods could even upgrade with the addition of a standalone $80 wireless-compatible charging case -- which was first shown in that fabled September 2017 demo. 


Nomad's Base Station Apple Watch Edition, due in April, is the latest "3 in 1" answer to AirPower.

Nomad/Screenshot by CNET

And while AirPower was MIA, competitors pounced, introducing a steady stream of compatible devices that could do the job. Samsung's Galaxy S10 not only wirelessly charges a smartwatch or set of earbuds, it can charge another phone -- including an iPhone. "I'll see your missing AirPower, and raise you bilateral device-to-device charging," you could almost hear Samsung saying. 

All the while, other accessory makers began releasing (or at least announcing) multidevice charging pads, like the $140 Nomad model pictured above. The "Apple Watch plus iPhone charging valet" is already something of a sub-category. 

18 months of rumors and mystery sightings

Sarah Tew/CNET

We began to wonder: is Apple gaslighting us? For months, the company casually, but inconsistently, dropped AirPower mentions in its listings, manuals and product packaging. Those same new AirPods and Wireless Charging Case, introduced last week, come in boxes decorated with a breezy note confirming that the wireless earbuds are indeed compatible with the AirPower mat. And just last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple had "approved production" of the device. 

But there were less-confident disclosures, too. When the iPhone XS Smart Battery Case went live on the company's site in January, it included a caption: "The Smart Battery Case is compatible with AirPower Wireless Charging Mat and other Qi‑certified chargers." That sentence disappeared from the site soon after. 

Unboxing Apple's Smart Battery Case for iPhone XS/Max

See all photos

Mentions of the AirPower also appeared briefly on the Apple site in September 2018, and it was cited in the manuals for the iPhone XS and XS Max. All of these products were confirmed to be compatible with the wireless charging pad. 

With a whimper, not a bang

All the while, a handful of reports suggested that Apple had run into major difficulties making the AirPower actually work as planned. One reason, reported by Daring Fireball's John Gruber, was that the multicoil charging design caused the device to get too hot to function. Another report claimed that the AirPower chip had trouble communicating with the Apple products it was supposed to charge. Those September 2018 stories, around the one-year anniversary of the product's announcement, followed a June report from Bloomberg's Mark Gurman that cited problems with the overlapping charging coils. 

Whatever the ultimate technical reason, Apple eventually made the calculation that it wasn't worth it and threw in the towel. It's officially DOA for now. And ultimately, Apple has bigger fish to fry, from reinvigorating the iPhone line to scaling up its newly announced service initiatives. A small accessory like AirPower -- even if it had been pegged at Apple's usual lofty prices and had sold briskly -- wasn't going to substantively change the company's fortunes, where even megahits like Apple Watch and AirPods are a comparative blip on a multibillion dollar balance sheet.

Could Apple go back to the drawing board someday and unveil a better charging pad? Sure, anything's possible. But if the company does it, you can bet one thing: The execs won't be announcing it on stage until it's in the box and ready to ship. 

Editors' note: This story was originally published March 25 to track the facts and rumors surrounding the release of AirPower. It has been converted to an analysis following the official announcement of the product's cancellation.