AirPower's failure won't hurt Apple. But these 3 things already are
Commentary: Apple has far bigger challenges on its docket than a cancelled wireless charger.
John FalconeSenior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
ExpertiseOver 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping adviceCredentials
Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
After being unveiled alongside the iPhone X in September 2017, the wireless charging mat -- designed to juice up to three Apple devices simultaneously -- never saw the light of day. Marketing chief Phil Schiller said at the time it would ship in 2018, but last year came and went without a peep about AirPower. Last week, Apple finally threw in the towel, admitting it couldn't produce the product "at its high standards."
Embarrassing? Sure. Obviously, Apple never should've announced something it couldn't deliver for prime time. A sign that Apple is losing its mojo? Maybe. But ultimately, AirPower's cancellation doesn't matter. For consumers, this accessory was always, at best, a "nice to have." Anyone who wants a wireless charger has long since moved on and bought one of the countless wireless chargers available from other brands.
For Apple itself, the story wasn't much different: AirPower was never going to appreciably move the needle on the sales front. At a presumed price point around $150 -- Apple never confirmed what it was going to charge for it -- AirPower was going to be at the very high end of the market compared to the competition. But even if it had defied the odds and become a megahit like Apple's $159 AirPods, it still wouldn't make a dent on Apple's earnings report, where nearly three quarters of revenue comes from iPhones and services.
In short, when analysts and pundits look back years from now, no one will identify the AirPower fail as a pivot point where Apple lost its edge. But there are at least three other problems facing Apple, each of which have far more serious consequences for Apple's future. One or all of them could point to rough waters ahead if CEO Tim Cook and his team don't address them head on -- and soon.
Apple has fallen behind Google and Huawei on camera tech
If Apple sticks to its usual schedule, we'll see new iPhones in September -- less than six months away. And while the current iPhones remain excellent overall, there's one key area where Apple is falling behind: photography. Google's PIxel 3 models -- which hit stores within weeks of the iPhone XS -- have impressive zoom capabilities and can literally take photos in the dark, thanks to a feature called Night Sight. And Huawei -- notwithstanding the myriad legal and security issues it's facing in the US -- is continuing to churn out amazing, bleeding-edge handsets. Its latest phone, the P30 Pro, includes a host of amazing camera tech, including 5x to 10x optical zoom, meaning you can get in close (or at least closer) to performers on stage, athletes on the field or landmarks on your vacation.
Google is achieving magic with a single lens backed up by some serious computational photo smarts, while Huawei (and Chinese smartphone maker Oppo) are using an impressive periscope design to mimic the telephoto capabilities of a full-blown dSLR camera. At least one 2019 iPhone is rumored to have a triple-lens camera, and Apple's portrait modes -- even on the single-lens iPhone XR -- show that its own computational photography skills are world-class. But with these savvy competitors coming on strong, Apple can't just add a wide-angle lens and call it a day -- especially on iPhones for which it's charging customers upward of $1,000, the same or more than those competitors.
The 2016 Pro introduced the Touch Bar, a long thin touchscreen that replaced the function keys, and it brought an updated version of the "butterfly" keyboard -- a superflat, short-travel keyboard that debuted in its 2015 12-inch MacBook -- to the Pro line, which costs $200 to $500 more. The Touch Bar remains a curiosity that divides Mac users -- it's a poor substitute for a true touchscreen, it never seemed to be fully embraced by developers, and Pro users who don't like it resent that they're effectively paying extra for something they don't want -- no matter that Apple design chief Jony Ive says they opted for a touch strip after deciding that touchscreens were "less compelling."
But the butterfly keyboard -- named after the design that replaced the traditional scissor mechanism in earlier Apple keyboards -- is the one aspect of current MacBooks that remains the most controversial. While some have adapted to its nearly flattened design (the keys depress, or travel, less than 1 millimeter, compared to 1.5 to 2mm for more traditional laptop keyboards), others have found themselves with unresponsive keys or typing out frequent double letters. In fact, it was said that even a single speck of dust was enough to befoul some butterfly keyboards.
Yes, MacBooks have plenty of amazing tech on board, from their gorgeous Retina screens to their industry leading T2 chips, which handle encryption and security duties. And Apple may well be months away from unveiling a groundbreaking new MacBook that runs on the same sort of fast, fanless and battery-efficient ARM processor found in Apple's own iPad Pro, rather than Intel's hotter and more power-hungry CPUs. But, at the very least, Apple's engineers need to go back to the drawing board on its keyboard -- and maybe just give up on Touch Bar while they're at it.
Siri just isn't as good -- or as widespread -- as Alexa and Google Assistant
But so far, Apple's only "dedicated" Siri device is the $350
. And it competes with
and Google-compatible speakers that sell for as little as $30 to $50. I don't see Apple competing in that price range. But it could take a page from its recent moves with Apple Music and Apple TV services, both of which are or will soon be available on far cheaper devices from Amazon and Roku: Let Siri live on non-Apple devices. Yes, Amazon won't let that happen on its hardware, but that's exactly the point: If Apple continues to keep Siri locked up on high-priced Apple-only hardware, it's hard to see her making inroads -- even if and when she gets smarter.
Buying time until the next big thing
To be clear, Apple is hardly in dire straits. It's still making billions of dollars every quarter, and it has a $245 billion (and counting) cash war chest. It also has popular products including the Apple Watch, iPad and AirPods that are arguably all at the top of their respective categories -- and would each be impressive standalone businesses on any other company's balance sheet.
That's why Cook needs to address these issues sooner rather than later: Apple needs its iPhone and Mac businesses to stay healthy, if not grow, and it needs Siri to woo a decent chunk of the nascent smart home market. And all the while, it should keep cooking up something truly innovative to disrupt the smartphone market -- before somebody else does.