Apple’s decision to pull the plug on an unreleased, yet fully announced product is one of the most un-Apple-est things I’ve seen from Cupertino since I started covering the company.
At 4 PM on a Friday, which in and of itself is such a cliché, Apple sent an emailed statement announcing the end of the wireless charging mat AirPower, a product that never saw the light of day. One public relations vet confirmed to me that PR pros do counsel clients to deliver bad news late on Friday in the hopes that it’ll get missed/buried. I guess I thought Apple was above that.
I know people get confused and think that Apple kills products all the time. Behind the scenes, Apple tests and tries all sorts of gadgets, form factors, and configurations that managers and executives deep six with what I can only assume is some enthusiasm. We see hints of these aborted gizmos in leaks and patent filings, but we never see them on stage.
On September 12, 2017, at approximately 2:45 PM ET, Apple Global SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller stood on stage at Steve Jobs Theater and announced that Apple was working on a wireless charging pad called AirPower. The image showed a lozenge-shaped white pad simultaneously charging an iPhone X, Apple Watch, and an AirPod with a wireless charging case. The latter also didn’t yet exist, but the implication was that it would follow the AirPower, which was set to ship sometime in 2018.
Apple has absolutely teased other products well in advance of ship dates. There was, for example, the Mac Pro, which Apple famously unveiled at WWDC in 2013. The cylindrical super-computer was then far enough along that Apple felt comfortable placing it, behind thick plexiglass, in the lobby of the Moscone Convention center. We could see the bizarre, triangular configuration of the motherboards and even identify components. The product looked ready to ship, which it did, by the end of that year. (Ironically, the next fully redesigned, do-over Mac Pro, which Apple told me about in 2017, is already almost a year behind.)
I can’t remember the last time Apple didn’t keep a product promise. It either announces and ships or it doesn’t.
Obviously, when we got through all of 2018 without an AirPower, there were some concerns, and I had heard whispers about technical challenges. Honestly, I didn’t believe them. Seriously, look at your iPhone and think about all the technology that’s squeezed inside there with nanometer tolerances. How hard could it be to design a functioning, Qi-based wireless charging pad?
In my home, I already own a small collection of individual and even dual charging pads. My favorite is the Samsung Fast Charger that includes a tilted pad for my phone and a horizontal one with a little scoop out of it for a smart watch that also works with Qi-compatible phones. I have charging pads from Mophie and Google, as well.
Apple’s decision to push the envelope a bit by making as many as three undefined charging areas might have been an overreach, especially if, in tests they had trouble just dropping a device on the AirPower and getting an instant charge connection. Another issue might have been heat. I’ve never noticed any heat issues with my charging pads, even on the two-device Samsung, but maybe three is a heat-bridge too far.
Beyond the why is the fallout from this announcement.
The pressure to deliver an AirPower charging pad had been building for some time, but reached a crescendo last week when Apple unexpectedly unveiled the new AirPods with Wireless Charging Case. It was a release that felt like a windup for the AirPower pitch.
Apple’s statement on the AirPower’s fate, buried on a slightly sleeping Friday afternoon, surely came as a response to yet another “Where the heck is the AirPower?” query, this time from TechCrunch’s Matt Panzarino.
“After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward.”
The apologetic though mostly bloodless explanation is notable for its source, Apple SVP of Hardware Dan Riccio.
Unlike Schiller, Eddy Cue, Craig Federighi and Apple CEO Tim Cook, Riccio is not the guy Apple usually trots out to talk about products. Plus, if there’s an apology to be made, it usually falls to Cook. Unlike Apple’s founder, the late Steve Jobs, Cook has a history of forthright apologies. I have no idea why he didn’t step forward on this.
Granted, no one would know more about why things went wrong that Riccio. I’ve sat in on small Apple media gatherings where, for example, Riccio has spoken with startling candor about the development process of the iPhone X.
Riccio’s statement is, perhaps, more revealing than he intends it to be. In it he doesn’t say Apple couldn’t make AirPower work, but it didn’t meet their standards. In other words, it probably worked, but not as promised. Maybe they couldn’t handle the loose placement of wireless charging gadgets. Whatever wireless charging pad Apple does release in the future it will probably have designated pad positions. We know from Riccio’s statement that this is not the end of Apple charging pads. “The future is wireless,” wrote Riccio, but if Apple’s lost its taste for wireless charging pad development, it might look to buying a company with experience in the space. I was thinking Belkin. It’s worth that kind of investment for “the future.”
What we’re left with at the end of all this, though, is a broken promise from one of our most trusted technology companies. It’s like being handed a basket of snakes. You don’t want it and have no idea how to handle it. Apple’s never really done anything like this before and it’s never had to deal with the embarrassment of showing us a vapor product.
Apple’s track record with excellent products and services means customers will soon forgive and forget, but tech pundits (like this one) will be harsh and competitors like Samsung will have a field day.
If only Apple could pull the plug on that.