Collector of Rare Apple Devices Shows Off Working AirPower Prototype

A Closer Look at the Product That Never Was
AirPower prototype Giulio Zompetti Credit: Giulio Zompetti
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Apple’s ill-fated AirPower charging mat is easily one of the biggest letdowns in the company’s long and storied history, but now an Apple enthusiast in Italy is sharing a never-before-seen look at what could have been.

Giulio Zompetti, who makes a hobby of collecting rare Apple devices, has recently managed to get his hands on a working prototype of the AirPower wireless charging mat, and he’s shared a video on Twitter showing the charger in action.

Although we’ve seen leaked photos of AirPower prototypes, this is likely the first time that anybody outside of Apple’s R&D labs has even seen an actual prototype of the charging mat in working form, apart from the contrived demos Apple produced for its 2017 iPhone event, of course.

The 28-year-old told The Verge that he was able to purchase the prototype from Chinese e-waste sources, although it’s clearly far from a finished product. “The unit lacks all of its exterior housing, and shows this beautiful and heavy stainless steel chassis,” he said.

Zompetti also shared several photos with The Verge, which look extremely similar to the leaked prototype images we saw last year, with even more detail. They clearly show 22 coils on the top with 22 controller circuits underneath — a very ambitious design that was likely the reason it failed.

Interestingly, Zompetti’s video shows an iPhone being laid on the mat with the telltale animation that Apple demoed back in 2017. This is a special prototype iPhone, however, which Zompetti says is necessary to “wake up” the coils.

It doesn’t work with production devices because the coils are woken up by the device.

Giulio Zompetti

Zompetti says he actually received the prototype AirPower unit in December, and since it was an engineering prototype, it didn’t work right out of the box. Zompetti had to hook up a serial Lightning cable to configure it and read the logs, and then presumably had to obtain the necessary prototype iPhones to work with it.

AirPower Is Dead, Long Live MagSafe

Apple’s AirPower project was a rare public failure for the company. Announced in 2017, it promised a single mat that could wirelessly charge an iPhone, an Apple Watch, and a set of AirPods simultaneously, dropped anywhere on top of the oblong mat.

While multi-device charging mats weren’t a new thing even then, most of them required that each device be laid down in a specific place to line up with the charging coils.

AirPower would have been different, as Apple wanted to make it as easy to use as possible. To accomplish this, Apple planned to add an unprecedented number of individual power coils — which also had to be small enough to accommodate the Apple Watch. While Zompetti’s prototype shows 22, it’s likely that Apple experimented with other configurations as well.

Unfortunately, the overlapping coils created interference and heating problems that turned out to be insurmountable in the end. After promising AirPower in 2018 and leaving everyone wondering why it would arrive, Apple finally announced in March 2019 that AirPower was simply not to be.

Despite a few rumours last year that Apple was still working on AirPower, it seemed clear that this was a long shot, and it’s likely most of the team had been moved over to building Apple’s new MagSafe chargers — something that turned out to be an even better solution to the problem getting the correct charging placement.

While AirPower relied on putting enough coils to cover every possible iPhone position, MagSafe took the opposite approach. Instead of trying to accommodate where the user placed the iPhone, a ring of magnets effectively forced the iPhone to land in the correct position.

This allowed Apple to also offer much faster 15W charging speeds, since it could rely on perfect coil placement. We never heard confirmation on what the charging rate of AirPower was intended to be, but we doubt it would have been possible to get speeds even close to that with the smaller and much denser coil arrangement.

In fact, it was only two weeks after MagSafe made its debut with the iPhone 12 that sources confirmed that AirPower would not be coming back from the dead. Although Apple may have left a few small teams working to see if they could still solve the design problems, even those were shut down last fall.

While AirPower is a fascinating piece of Apple history, today it’s just a failed experiment that would have been a solution to a problem that no longer really exists. It’s been supplanted by MagSafe, which is clearly the new future of wireless charging for Apple devices.

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