One of the most-rumoured features for last year’s iPhone 11 that never actually materialized could be on its way to making a comeback, and in fact it might even already be hidden in Apple’s latest iPhone 12 models, just waiting to be switched on.
We are of course talking about the idea of two-way or “reverse” wireless charging, which was predicted in early 2019 by the usually very accurate analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, as a way of allowing iPhone users to quickly charge smaller devices like AirPods or possibly even the Apple Watch while on the go. There was even an expectation that the iPhone 11 lineup would get larger batteries to offer more power for charging other devices.
However, when the 2019 iPhone Keynote came and went, two-way wireless charging topped the list of missed expectations, and while it was unclear exactly why, after the AirPower debacle it wasn’t hard to assume that Apple may have planned for the feature, but later decided it simply wasn’t ready for prime time.
This theory was also supported by the fact that iPhone 11 teardowns revealed what appeared to be hidden two-way wireless charging components, and at least one leaker added the suggestion that the hardware was in both the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, but needed to be enabled by software.
Others reports disagreed, however, suggesting that it was never slated for production, and that any hardware that may have been found in the iPhone 11 to point the feature was either being misinterpreted or was a remnant from Apple’s original plans that simply didn’t get phased out after the design was otherwise finalized.
Coming to the iPhone 12
Now, new reports are suggesting that it’s the iPhone 12 that could be getting the feature this year, and once again, it may already be there in the hardware.
Of course, if you’re feeling like you’ve heard this song before, we can’t say we blame you, but it’s actually quite a different story this year, as Apple has quietly pointed out the feature in its own FCC filings. In other words, this isn’t just somebody guessing at hardware found inside the iPhone — Apple has actually admitted that it’s there in at least some form.
FCC documents are often the biggest indicators of hardware changes like this, and in fact it was the need for Apple to get pre-approval from the FCC that forced them to announce the original iPhone six months ahead of its actual release back in 2007; when Steve Jobs took the stage to show off the revolutionary new device, he specifically cited that as the reason, saying that Apple wanted to be the one to break the news, and not leave it up to the FCC.
In this case, new FCC filings found by VentureBeat’s Jeremy Horwitz, specifically point to not only a wireless charging receiver but also a wireless charging transmitter, which of course means that it should be capable of sending charging power to other devices.
The FCC filing explains that “2020 iPhone models also support WPT [(wireless power transfer)] charging” for the purpose of charging accessories. However, it also goes on to add that “currently, the only accessory that can be charged by iPhones is an external potential apple [sic] accessory in future.”
The document cites the entire iPhone 12 lineup, from the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 mini to the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max, although it’s notable that unlike the story with the iPhone 11, none of the teardowns conducted so far have identified any new hardware that would be used to support this feature. Of course it’s entirely possible that the first round of teardowns have simply missed this, as it wasn’t discovered right away last year either.
What This Means
By the looks of things, if you’ve been hoping for generic reverse wireless charging, that probably still won’t be happening any time soon, as this appears to be a somewhat proprietary system that Apple has cooked up, and not something that could be used to charge any Qi-compatible device.
In fact, if the language in the filing is accurate — and we have no reason to believe it isn’t — then you won’t even be able to use this to charge Apple’s own AirPods or AirPods Pro, since it very specifically refers to an accessory that doesn’t yet exist — although of course, it’s certainly possible that next year’s AirPods could include some kind of MagSafe charging case — something that’s already been suggested by a recent patent application.
Another obvious possibility would be Apple’s upcoming AirTags, since at least some reports have suggested that these will include a rechargeable battery — or at least some models might, as another rumour says Apple could be releasing multiple sizes of AirTags. It would make sense for Apple to provide a way to quickly juice these back up without requiring users to do something as seemingly silly as plugging their key tag into a USB charger, and considering that even the Apple Watch and other smart watches struggle with Qi charging, it’s extremely unlikely that AirTags would be able to work with standard wireless chargers.
For now, however, it would appear that the reverse wireless charging feature only works when the iPhone is actually “connected to an AC power outlet,” according to the FCC filing, although Apple does make room for that to change in the future.
Since it could use MagSafe to hold the accessory in place, Apple envisions “that customers may use the charging function in a portable use condition,” such as while making a call or texting, adding that “future designs may support true portable use condition,” allowing the accessory to remain magnetically attached and continue charging when placed in the user’s pocket or backpack.
In this case, it appears that Apple would need to conduct a “body-worn exposure assessment,” to satisfy the FCC’s requirements, which may also explain why it’s using a relatively limited use case for its initial implementation—especially considering that it doesn’t really need to be in a hurry for a feature that’s clearly only designed to work with an accessory that doesn’t even exist yet, at least not in the public consciousness.
Nonetheless, once compatible accessories are available, even the current design could help to reduce clutter on a desk or nightstand, and might even save some users the need to purchase a wireless charger; allowing an iPhone 12 to charge a set of AirPods, for example, would allow a single power adapter and charging cable to do double-duty.