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What Really Happened to Apple’s Airpower (sonnydickson.com)
115 points by stablemap on Sept 18, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments



I think they got a bit excited with sharing prospective products. In the last year or two they've broken precedent and announced a few things prematurely. For one, they said that they were going to be releasing a professional-level iMac Pro soon (which happened). In the same meeting [0], they said that they're working on a new modular design for the Mac Pro which is probably due next year (assuming they're still on track). I think the feedback from those premature announcements was so positive that they decided to announce AirPower before it was fully matured, and on that one they've paid the price.

I wouldn't be surprised if they turn up the recluse-o-meter once again after this one, and I'm torn about that personally. On the one hand, it's great to see proof that they're working on innovations constantly, and it's neat to see that they don't always work (failure is a necessary component of invention). On the other hand, it's super exciting as a consumer to watch their live events and see something completely new that's available immediately and think "Wow, this is cool!", and that wouldn't happen if they keep pre-announcing things.

[0] https://daringfireball.net/2017/04/the_mac_pro_lives


They never said that they would release the Mac Pro next year (2018) they said “not this year” (2017). From the link you posted...

These next-gen Mac Pros and pro displays “will not ship this year”. (I hope that means “next year”, but all Apple said was “not this year”.) In the meantime


Oh, you're so right! I mis-remembered and didn't bother to check through the article first. My mistake. (I knew the article from reading it when it was published.)

Still, I'd be surprised if they expected it to be any later than 2019. Historically they never give information out like that early at all, so for them to break precedent and announce anything seems to indicate that they're fairly confident. Hopefully it goes better than AirPower haha.


Just the opposite. All indications are that they hadn’t even started on the Mac Pro when they made the announcement, their way forward before then was the iMac Pro. I doubt they had any game plan at the time.


From what I've heard -- although my "little birdies" are probably much less reliable than Gruber's -- they had technically started on the Mac Pro when they made the announcement. But you're only off by a matter of weeks.


That would have to sting.

At that point the Mac Pro will have been _over five years_ since its last update (December 2013).

Of course Apple is still gleefully charging full price for Ivy Bridge (Xeon v2) processors, not to mention ~$600 for 32GB memory.

That has to sting.


Apple admitted they made a design mistake with the Mac Pro. It’s clear that they were originally planning to abandon the Mac Pro and release the iMac Pro to address the high end - along with operating system changes so Macs would work better with external GPUs.

Then they had an about face mid last year.

What I don’t understand is how hard is it for them to make a simple pro Mac in a tower case? I doubt that it takes PC manufacturers two years to design a mid tower high end workstation. Intel is doing most of the engineering and they (Apple) already have a very high performing SSD controller.


I'm not sure if those examples are really the same as AirPower? I think AirPower is the first major unforced consumer pre-announcement SNAFU Apple has had in a long time, and the pro situation is different. It came up in a previous thread but the last really major one that instantly came to mind was during the Steve-era with the G5, where he got up and promised it'd hit 3 GHz within 12 months and then that never happened (and he was reportedly furious about that). AirPower really was somebody getting carried away. Although it does at least serve as a hard demonstration that Apple's secrecy is more then just a PR hype thing, not announcing a product until it's going to mass manufacturing helps prevent a lot of angst over the inevitable unknown unknowns hit pursuing aggressive engineering.

The Pro systems in contrast:

>In the last year or two they've broken precedent and announced a few things prematurely[...]iMac Pro/Mac Pro

The thing is they basically had to do this if they didn't want to just dump the desktop pro market entirely (which perhaps was a source of internal debate, but apparently they decided it actually was something they cared about). The real tower Mac Pro was 7 years old. The obvious-failure-on-launch cylinder Mac "Pro" (with its 450W budget) had as expected never been touched again, had effectively zero 3rd party support due to fundamentally bad design decisions, and could even be outperformed in some roles by its predecessor. Professionals in that particular market were (and are) dumping Apple, mostly wholesale for modern PC systems though some may have gone hackintosh (VMs interest me in that role personally). At any rate the situation was untenable and Apple had no actual hardware whatsoever on hand to offer either.

So they had to either just decide Mac pro desktops were not valuable and declare it dead and done, or if it was valuable to offer any remaining users there some reason (however delayed) to not completely give up on Apple. The only card they really had to play is to make a future promise in a way that they normally do not. I don't know how well it worked overall, and I'm highly pessimistic that Apple actually learned a lesson there and is doing something that could be interesting and worth it (though FWIW there at least in principle is cool stuff Apple could do there), but that seems to be how it worked out. I don't think it was due to some long term change of strategy or Apple getting over excited, it was simply the only move remaining to them after a fairly bad set of own-goals if they wanted to continue to exist in that space.

And if they do manage to find their legs there again I wouldn't be surprised if this was a one-off and they went right back to staying quiet while doing yearly bumps rather then any sort of roadmap. Though organization structure changes would be more reassuring there.


I eventually gave up on waiting for AirPower when Peel released their charger[1]: very thin, clean lines without branding, no LEDs to bother you if it's on your nightstand. It really feels like the product Apple should have shipped along with the first wireless iPhones.

[1]: https://buypeel.com/products/the-super-thin-wireless-charger...


Does it work with a thin case on the phone? The quantity of charging cables I have to contend with is too damn high.


I have an Apple leather case on mine, and the Peel charger works flawlessly. It also supports the Qi fast (7.5W) charging standard for devices that can utilize that.


Thank you!


Now this seems like the kind of product I like. No unnecessary branding, just the requirements.


Thanks for the recommend, bought two of them :-D


I don't much mind the branding, but the LED is a real problem and it's not at all apparent from some of the listings just how bad it can be. I first bought a Samsung [0] (because it was one of only two that were purported to be future-compatible with the fast wireless charge once Apple released it in a firmware update), and could not bear the whole-room-illuminating glare of the bright green/blue LED and do not recommend it.

I'm using this Spigen charger [1] now and happy with the tiny LED on there that is mostly covered up by the placement of the phone. This newer one by Anker [2] is on my list of chargers to try if I need a replacement since I have been happy with their products in the past, but the hard, shiny surface makes it look a bit cheaper than the matte finish on the Spigen, although it's more reasonably priced.

I also have this stand-up Samsung charger for my desk [3], which does not have the same glaring light issue as the first one I bought, but I specifically did not want a stand-up model for my nightstand.

The Samsung models are specifically designed for Android Qi-compatible phones that use a version of the protocol that is not fully compatible with Apple's. In particular, their LEDs are dual-color and intended to light up blue when charging then switch to green when charge has completed. They do not switch to green when charging an iPhone. The Spigen by contrast just has an indicator light that turns on when the iPhone is in contact with the wireless charger (i.e. can charge, regardless of whether or not it is fully charged).

But note that the Samsung comes with an AC adapter capable of supporting fast charge, but the Spigen and the Anker do not -- you'll need to make sure you plug them into an adapter capable of supplying the sufficient voltage and current (as I believe fast charge switches to 9V), otherwise charge speed will be limited (and wireless charging is already slow enough).

0: https://amzn.to/2POFUau

1: https://amzn.to/2NmnlNW

2: https://amzn.to/2OBQlxK

3: https://amzn.to/2xrXkC4


You could at least be upfront that the above are Amazon referral links that you will make a commission from if people follow the links and purchase a product.


...could not bear the whole-room-illuminating glare of the bright green/blue LED and do not recommend it.

I had the same problem, although the charger was black so I used a small strip of electrical tape. Didn't cost me a thing.


Another option for covering bright LED's is nail polish. With a light color you can still see the LED, but it's much dimmer, with a darker color, it can obscure it completely.


The first Samsung I linked to actually has a huge ring that lights up. No amount of electrical tape would help there.


They sell very long rolls of electrical tape. Hundreds of feet, it you want it. I guess it all comes down to aesthetics.


I know a bit about wireless charging (I design&build electronic devices). When I first heard about the idea of a multi-device charging mat, my first thought was: how in the hell are they going to do that? I didn't think it merely difficult, I thought it wasn't possible at all.


They use multiple coils: "we can confirm is comprised of between 21 and 24 power coils".

Presumably they detect where the device is and engage an appropriate coil. Quick search on amazon found a few charging pads with multiple coils.


They use a grid of coils. By activating multiple adjacent coils, it behaves like one big coil. From a physics perspective it's really neat: the magnetic fields of opposing currents in adjacent wires should cancel. But the price you pay is that you have the charging current flowing through more length of wire, and more resistive losses (heat).


Phased array inductive charging. Fascinating!


21-24 is a weird range


As someone who knows basically nothing about designing electronic devices, my initial thought is 3 rows of 7 coils or 3 rows of 8 coils? This wouldn't make it a range, though, so much as an either/or situation.


Would probably make more sense to choose some hexagonal pattern.


Oh, good point!


It's a weird design.


But there already exists something like that https://www.amazon.com/Wireless-Charger-JE-Charging-QI-Enabl...


That is just three wireless chargers stacked next to each other. Apple's design was to have no required orientation or position, just drop it wherever on the mat, along with whatever other devices.


Still, it is "multi-device charging mat" and if Apple could provide something like that their customers would be more than happy - I guess.


Could you expand on this?


It's easy -- just use variable position wireless power transmitted through multiple cooperative flux generators!

I'd submitted https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17980168 a few days ago, links to a landing page for a white paper and presentation.

Direct link: https://www.wirelesspowerconsortium.com/technology/multiple-...


unless the device is redesigned to be slightly thicker and larger – decisions which Apple is specifically unwilling to make compromises on for their overall design.

Sounds like Apple.


The bit that really annoys me is that a more stand-up form factor would probably be more usable for most people, since it allows using a phone as a mini-screen.


That's one possible use case, typically don't charge my phone during the day. I have a phone stand on my desk in my work and home offices without chargers. I also have chargers next to the couch, kitchen counter, and night stand without phone stands.

In my case I'd prefer a mat to toss my phone on to a stand.


Much harder to set a watch on that


Or a thick AirPods case


As opposed to Belkin who puts their name on some ok stuff and a lot of horrible Shenzhen designed garbage?

I'll take the Apple route I think. There is plenty of room for both takes. I won't trash a company because they don't want to compromise their image.

If they feel it's important to have a sleek charger then I'm glad they would rather not release than compromise their vision even if it doesn't matter to me.


>>> unless the device is redesigned to be slightly thicker and larger – decisions which Apple is specifically unwilling to make compromises on for their overall design.

>> Sounds like Apple.

> As opposed to Belkin who puts their name on some ok stuff and a lot of horrible Shenzhen designed garbage?

That's entirely different. This sounds like Apple prioritizing barely-perceptible differences, and letting them either turn into roadblocks or force other unpleasant compromises (e.g. removal of the 3.5mm jack and the adoption of the unreliable butterfly keyboard).

The prioritization of thinness jumped the shark a long time ago, IMHO.


> It also affects the ability of Apple’s custom charging chip, which runs a stripped down version of iOS, to function as intended.

Does the Airpower really runs a whole OS or am reading it wrong ? I'm wondering what are the features that require that much complexity...


One alternative solution for multi-device charging that avoids the overlapping coil approach that apple is reportedly having issues with is to simply move the coil to the middle of the device(s). That was the solution that Panasonic used for the QE-TM101 [0]. This particular implementation has only one coil so multiple devices are charged in series.

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpSHJwiDfv4 (Not my video. Shows a Nexus 4 being placed in worst-case positions and an illuminated robotic primary charging coil attempting to couple with the secondary on the phone.)


I still don't understand the appeal of wireless charging...it always struck me as a solution in search of a problem. Is the half-a-second act of plugging in a phone really so burdensome to people that we need to "solve" it? A wireless charge still requires an outlet, a cord, a place to set the pad down...it's identical to current charges minus the so-minor-and-quick-you-dont-even-think-about-it step of plugging in the phone.

Maybe, maybe if an entire surface (eg desk) was capable of wireless charging that would be a neat upgrade, otherwise I just don't get it at all. Now get off my lawn.


I have one at my desk and one next to my bed. At work I can check a notification and then just put it back down without messing with a cable every time. And when I'm tired at night I don't have to chase down a cable and try to plug it in, I can just throw the phone on the mat in the dark. It's not a huge difference but it's nice, and it's worth the $7 I paid for a charging pad.


Anecdotally, I can speak a bit about my Nexus 7 which I've had since 2014. It supported the wireless Qi standard when it came out, and I got a wireless charging pad soon after I got the thing.

I've seen quite a few complaints on the xda-developers board about people with various Android phones and tablets (Nexus 7 included) becoming more or less unusable because the microUSB port wears out after so many thousand plug-ins and eventually breaks, dislodges, or stops recognizing the cable, and the end-user is unable to charge their device anymore.

Since I wirelessly charge my Nexus 7 90% of the time (only using micro-USB if travelling or topping it off at work), the micro-USB port is still in great condition. Personally I've had four phones and two tablets and never had any of the ports break on me, but, I suppose fumbling in the dark trying to jam the cable into the phone late at night could definitely put some wear and tear on the device.

I've heard possible stories that wireless charging might be worse for the battery, though, so, trade-offs for everything I suppose.


Has anyone ever seen a worn out lightning or dock port? I've seen plenty of damaged cables and plugs, but not the port itself


Yes, there's an issue where if the ground/power pins have a poor contact (due to a bad/dirty cable or whatnot), you end up up with a short on the pin which creates tiny shocks that leave a carbon discharge, and making it drop the charge. Your phone will now create carbon discharge on any new cable, spreading the "disease" to other iOS device. Look around at any "public" lightning cable for black spots on one of the middle pins.


I think the connector is self wiping, and will eventually clear with repeated insertions.


Lightning cables are essentially consumables. I’ve spent at least two hundred dollars across our family on them. I’d rather have wireless and the efficiency hit that goes with it (in return for hardware longevity and cable cost savings).


A 5S that I bought used off ebay eventually stopped detecting the lightening port, but obviously a very old phone as I think it was within the past year that it stopped.


I'd wager that Lightning is a substantially more durable port than MicroUSB in terms of insertion cycles...


I'd agree with you, the fragility of MicroUSB was one of the reasons I wanted to change to an iPhone - I was less than happy when the android world moved on from MiniUSB


https://www.google.com/search?q=broken+iphone+cable&rlz=1C5C...

Stopping manual handling of the cable is urgent.


Wireless chargers are great for “permanent” charging areas. I use one at my desk at work and on my nightstand at home. Does it save a ton of time? No, but it’s just easier. Most of the time is probably saved by not having to pick up the charging cable when it occasionally falls off the desk/surface while unplugged.


Think of a substantial surface in public places like an airport. Also I’m sure the design guys at Apple are thinking this is how they remove the last port on the iPhone a few years from now.


Apple also announced a wireless charging capable airpods case. Not a mention of it since..maybe it wasn’t feasible?


Inductive charging on the AirPods case is trivial. Apple already ships a similarly sized inductive charging system for the Apple Watch, which has a significantly larger battery and slower charge rate than the AirPods case/headphones.

The more likely reason they aren't shipping this yet is that it was a companion piece to AirPower: it doesn't use the Qi standard.


I don't think that's the reason, you can buy a case that for the Airpods case that adds Qi charging. I would guess they were planning on releasing it at the same time as the Airpower mat.


I have played around with qi hardware for a device in development, the best I could get from TI, and I found the entire system flakey, overheat prone, and generally rather impossible to debug and sensitive to the slightest variations.

Take a look at the Qi standard, it is mind bogglingly complicated.


From my short experience with wireless charging, I'm not a fan of the overheating issues and its definitely the reason why I wouldn't choose to use this over connecting a cable directly.


I primarily use a wireless charger and I haven't noticed any heating issues. It's in a phone stand form factor, though, rather than an attempt to be both paper-thin and lying flat like Airpower, so there's much more area for passive air-cooling.


I think my cheap choice of wireless charger is to blame; I'll have to try this out again with something more legitimate.


So far, this seems to be the best one I've seen for a combination of name recognition, fast charging support (which is still pretty hard to find), and not being ugly as sin: https://www.logitech.com/en-us/product/powered-iphone-wirele...

You can find cheaper $15 ones in a similar form factor on Amazon from Seneo, but it seems to be a crapshoot whether any specific unit will last long-term or have misaligned coils that give off an annoying whine.


Thanks, I'll definitely check that out


On the cheap side, I've had luck with the Comsol Wireless Charging Stand. I've used them with both a Nexus 5 & a Galaxy S8. Unfortunately it appears to have just been discontinued (currently on clearance sale), though I'm not surprised as it looks like a knock-off of a Samsung design:

https://www.officeworks.com.au/shop/officeworks/p/comsol-qi-...


At least with first generation Qi devices I think it was the device and not the charger to blame. I have a branded Lg charger and my Nexus 4 would occasionally overhead on it depending on how it was positioned. I eventually abandoned it and gave it to my wife who used her Nexus 5 with it for years and never complained of overheating.


This is what separates Apple from their competitors - any other company would have just shoveled some crap out the door by now.


You mean crap like an antenna around the circumference of the phone so if you hold the phone in the normal way, you attenuate the cell signal?


That was way over blown in hindsight. Apple sold the same GSM iPhone 4 without any modifications for 3 years.


This was all over the net yesterday, this guy just rewrote what he read and now you are upvoting this spam.


The linked post is dated September 16, I think it was the source of a lot of the 'all over the net' you saw yesterday.


Was it on HN? If it was, I missed it.


Apple's own website lists a wireless charger for sale from Belkin:

https://www.apple.com/shop/product/HLZ42/belkin-boost-up-spe...

So, although I've never used one myself, clearly these chargers are feasible and the overheating challenges the article lists are solvable. I know the Belkin one looks more simple (1 device instead of 3), but why doesn't Apple enter the market with a similar product? The article doesn't really answer the question for me of why Belkin is creating one but Apple is not.

Edit: Not sure why I'm getting downvoted. This is a genuine question and it's getting a lot of informative responses.


Wireless charging is solvable but the sales pitch for AirPower was actually pretty fundamentally different; AirPower would allow for up to three devices without "sweet spots". Traditional wireless chargers require the device to be in a specific location and at a specific orientation (which is why many mats and Qi-enabled devices have magnets, to enforce this).

While the use-case seems trivial it's a pretty challenging engineering problem; a lot of people who saw the original AirPower announcement and corresponding patent drawings[1] claimed immediately that it wouldn't be possible or would be unbelievably hard without advances in materials and it looks like those criticisms are bearing fruit.

[1]: http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2018/07/apple-re...


It's specifically tricky because of the three devices charging simultaneously. As far as I know, no such charger exists. It's a hard problem to get all the circuitry to work correctly in a confined space and handle various wattages and currents at the same time.


"This wireless charging pad supports 3 Qi-Enabled phone to be charged simultaneously." https://www.amazon.com/Wireless-Charger-JE-Charging-QI-Enabl...


That looks like 3 distinct wireless chargers, all for phones. Apple was attempting something more ambitious: a large mat where you could drop 3 different types of devices in any location.


What is the difference for a customer between 3 distinct chargers and 1 huge for 3 devices? It's not that hard to put your phone or watch on marked place on the mat, they could do just that, and with their resources they could do it better than this small company (I see from reviews that it's slow charging). Their idea was really cool, but if they can't do it, then why not create something less ambitious and then iterate to maybe finally create The Best Mat Ever.


Apple is trying to solve the UX issue of orientation and position with wireless charging. Current wireless charging is pretty shitty in that regard, the idea being that a large device with a matrix of coils that can be intelligently activated based on where the device is located would solve the problem.

Any other solution would seemingly still have the orientation issue.


The seeet spots are actually pretty small. I use a Samsung horizontal charger with my iPhone, and even though the circular charging surface is significantly smaller than the footprint of the phone, there is a fairly small range of resting spots that will engage the charging.


You'd have to ask Apple, and I'm sure they've discussed it, but they don't generally spend a lot of resources on something that can be easily replicated.


This is why I've never really found AirPower to be that compelling of a product, even though I buy lots of Apple stuff. Yeah, it's a pretty nifty technological thing (apparently too nifty!) but … why should I care?

I nearly never want my Watch and my iPhone on a charger at the same time because I pretty much always have at least one of them with me. And I charge my AirPods case so rarely (I plug it in for a few minutes once a week or so when I think to), it's not really compelling to me that it charges it separately.

Anyway, I'm sure other people differ...


IKEA had been selling the NORDMÄRKE for at least a year.




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