Three years ago Apple unveiled its first series of iPhones with support for wireless charging, and at the same time the company also promised to deliver a revolutionary new wireless charging mat that would allow for simple and intelligent charging of multiple Apple devices, including the new iPhone models, the Apple Watch, and a then-upcoming version of AirPods that would include a wireless charging case.
As time wore on, however, it became apparent that Apple was having problems getting its new charging mat, which it had dubbed AirPower, onto the market.
Apple originally promised that it would be delivered sometime in 2018, but that year came and went with no sign of the product, and while some reports offered a glimmer of hope that it wasn’t quite dead, Apple made the very rare public move of announcing its cancellation in early 2019, stating simply that it wasn’t going to live up to the company’s high standards.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but on reflection, it’s clear that AirPower was a moonshot project for Apple.
Although a charging mat seems like a simple thing on the surface, what Apple was attempting required bending the laws of physics by placing multiple charging coils not only in close proximity, but actually overlapping while also dealing with the unavoidable heat and other interference that would be generated between them.
The Problem Apple Was Trying to Solve
Although there are many Qi charging mats that allow for multiple devices to be charged simultaneously, these are basically just several Qi chargers stuck together, side by side. In other words, what may look like a single charging mat still requires pretty precise placement of devices in order to actually make an efficient charging connection.
The dream of AirPower was to create a charging pad that would allow a user to simply drop their iPhone anywhere on the pad, in any orientation, and have it properly charge, while also being able to add in an Apple Watch and a set of AirPods, and not only charge those devices, but provide communication in between them so that charging status could be shown and intelligently managed.
Since Qi charging works on the principle of lining up magnetic coils, Apple’s engineers assumed they could solve this problem with AirPower by including as many coils as possible, so that no matter where you dropped your device, it would line up with at least one of them. Leaked photos that appeared over the summer gave us a glance into what AirPower might have looked like, revealing the ambitious nature of what Apple was attempting to accomplish.
Companies had been releasing chargers using multiple coils for years to allow variations on device placement long before Apple even released its Qi-compatible iPhones. For example, upright chargers that allow a smartphone to be charged in either horizontal or vertical orientation often include two or three coils.
The real problem that Apple was trying to solve with AirPower, however, was one of ensuring proper device placement, and in many ways AirPower’s design was actually solving somebody else’s solution, not necessarily solving the actual problem.
Inventor Dean Kamen, who is best known for his invention of the Segway, but also created several advanced pieces of medical and healthcare technology, once spoke about how great technology doesn’t necessarily constitute innovation and the importance of looking at the real problem you’re trying to solve, rather than simply trying to solve somebody else’s solution to the problem.
For example, when Kamen developed the first portable dialysis machine, his breakthrough came in realizing that the problem that needed to be solved was controlling the flow of liquids within the system, while mechanical valves were merely one possible solution to that particular problem. All prior attempts to build a more portable machine had failed, however, because the designers had remained focused on trying to design smaller valves, rather than stepping back and looking at the actual problem and exploring other possible solutions.
The Real Problem with Qi Charging
Proper alignment between coils is not only important to make sure that your device charges, but it’s also critical in order to ensure that your device charges efficiently. The fact is that wireless charging is already inefficient, but as a recent study found, even a slight misalignment can result in an increase in power usage of up to 80 percent, which at the rate at which wireless charging is being adopted, could create a serious burden on the environment.
This would definitely be something that would concern Apple, with its strong culture of environmental responsibility, so there’s little doubt that it’s one of the problems it was trying to solve with AirPower. However, it was trying to do so simply by adding more coils, getting bogged down in trying to “solve the solution” rather than focusing on the real issue — ensuring proper device placement.
AirPower didn’t need more coils. It just needed to make sure the iPhone always lined up with whatever coils are there.
After Apple scrapped AirPower, it clearly went back to the drawing board and began looking at the big picture again, and when we first heard about the mysterious magnetic ring that could be coming to the iPhone 12, it seemed obvious that this would be key to Apple’s new wireless charging strategy.
The announcement of the MagSafe charging ecosystem is more than simply a cool product — it’s yet another example of Apple’s penchant for brilliant out of the box thinking when it comes to product designs and solutions, and of course in typical Apple style, it’s gone beyond merely ensuring efficient wireless charging into allowing the magnetic connector to embrace a whole new range of other clever accessories.