January 24, 2020

AirPower: A Counterfactual History

In the world of technical standards, everything is a trade-off.

Imagine, for a minute, that it’s September 2017. Whatever uncertainties the world may face in this moment, you know at least one thing to be unquestionably true: Apple is about to announce a new iPhone.

That announcement is today, in fact. Your interest having been piqued by leaks and rumors, you call up the media event’s livestream in a corner of your office computer screen just as it starts. After several, seemingly interminable minutes touting business metrics, Tim Cook segues into an unveiling of the iPhone 8. It’s the first iPhone with wireless charging.

He introduces it with a new brand name: AirPower.

The analysts were wrong. Apple has not thrown in with the Wireless Power Consortium, opting instead to build its own, proprietary wireless charging protocol, called AirPower. Cook brings a VP onstage to go into an accessible, yet detailed technical discussion of AirPower’s superiority to the industry-leading Qi standard: It’s faster! You don’t have to center your phone on the charging pad! And, most importantly: You can charge multiple devices, in any arrangement, on a single pad. You sure can’t do that with Qi!

The AirPower Wireless Charger is introduced in two sizes: single, for $79, and multi, for $149. Both ship alongside the iPhone 8, to rave reviews.

Tech commentators debate the merits of Apple retracing its path of the proprietary Lightning cable. By 2020, there are two distinct markets of wireless chargers: “Android chargers” that use Qi, and more expensive, MFi-certified “Apple chargers” that use the AirPower protocol. Only Samsung has tried to market a Qi-based competitor to Apple’s multi-device AirPower charger, cleverly named “S Power,” which it later recalled due to overheating.

All this, of course, is not what happened.

Back in our own timeline, the iPhone 8 and X were introduced not with a prorprietary Apple protocol, but with Qi. Apple used the AirPower name not for its own charging technology, but for its attempt to bend Qi to its own ends, to throw its engineering might behind an ambitious, multi-device, positioning-agnostic, Qi-based, wireless charging mat. One that became a rare example of Apple announcing something upon which it ultimately could not deliver.

We don’t know that proprietary wireless charging is something Apple ever considered, though it would seem very un-Apple to have not at least explored it. Either way, I tend to think Apple’s vision of an advanced, multi-device charger would have had a much better shot at viability had its engineers been starting from scratch instead of adapting a pre-existing technology originally developed to power an Amway-branded water filter.

This counterfactual exercise might read as a lament for what could have been – but it’s not. I don’t think this trade-off would have been a good one. In a world where phones play such an outsize role in our daily lives, wireless charging is a significant convenience, and dividing that convenience into two camps would have defeated much of it.

Proprietary solutions like AirPlay or AirPods’ W1 system are great, but only because their advantages can always be exchanged for the flexibility of an industry standard, Bluetooth. Proprietary wireless power, due to the physical requirements of coils, would almost certainly have been to the exclusion of Qi. And even without AirPower, you can buy multi-device chargers, just not ones with Apple’s enhancements. 

We often think of Apple as uncompromising when it comes to its vision of user experience. But we should be glad Apple compromised on wireless power. That compromise has undoubtedly yielded the better experience.