What happened with Apple's wireless AirPower charging pad, and why

Posted:
in iPhone edited September 16
Apple's AirPower is in stealth mode, as the company has mostly scrubbed it from its online presence. The technology is hard to perfect, and is much more than it appears at first glance -- AppleInsider tells you why.




Apple's "Gather Round" iPhone XS and Apple Watch Series 4 event was tough if you were looking forward to Apple's AirPower charging pad. In 2017, at Apple's iPhone X event, Apple teased it, promised it for 2018, and even showed us how it worked in the hands-on demonstration area after the reveal event.

But, Apple seems to have wiped it from existence online, and didn't say a thing about it onstage. Attempts by AppleInsider, and others, to get comment on the matter have been not just rebuffed, but outright refused.

So, clearly, there's something wrong, somewhere.

Qi, the standard behind Apple's wireless charging in the iPhone 8, iPhone X, pair of iPhone XS models, and the iPhone XR can be easy to execute technically, or very hard, depending on choices that charging plate manufacturers want to make and how they want the charging pad to perform.

Apple has chosen the hard road, for very good reasons.

Apple's AirPower stands alone

At present, the most common Qi implementation allows for one device to be charged by one base station. Multiple devices are allowed on one charging plate, as evidenced by a slew of copycats that have popped up since the announcement of the AirPower.

There is no specific order for devices on the AirPower, like there are on some of those copycats. A Series 3 or Series 4 Apple Watch, the as-yet unreleased AirPods Wireless Charging Case, and a compatible iPhone can be placed just about anywhere on the pad, and isn't limited to specific locations or device order.

This is implicitly allowed by the Qi standard, and the standard spells out how to do it in theory. It just appears that nobody else has done it the way that Apple is trying to do, just yet.

How Qi works

The Qi standard relies on induction between two coils, or similar structures, to deliver power to a device that needs charging. The base station contains a transmitting coil that generates a oscillating magnetic field, which induces an alternating current in the receiving field.

The coils are aligned with each other in either guided positioning relying on the user to place a device in a specific position and alignment, or hardware can be built allowing for free positioning.

Free positioning is generally used in most charging plates, with relatively minor adjustments of less than a quarter-inch made by magnetic positioning or other mechanical apparatuses.

There are many charging pads at this point with multiple physical coils. However, Apple appears to be going in a different direction.




The Qi spec also allows for free positioning to be implemented by inducing a magnetic field just at the location of the receiving coil with multiple co-operative flux generators. Devices put on a plate communicate their location and identity, and the field is only induced under the device by the flux generators operating in tandem.

Apple appears to be using this method for a trio of devices that can be placed in any order, on any location on the pad. Apple's hands-on demonstration from 2017 showed this, and AppleInsider was able to put multiple devices anywhere on the pad, in any order. After doing so, the AirPower was communicating with the charging devices, and the iPhone on the pad was displaying information about the other charging devices.

Both of these factors would account for the rumored reasons behind the delays.

Qi with actual coils and not flux generators requires very little in the way of software, and a solution requiring data transmittal is far more complex. Additionally, heat generated by the flux generators is more controllable from an engineering standpoint when you know that the physical charging coils are a fixed distance away, and will always be that distance away.

Over-promising and under-delivering never works out well

Apple said when they teased the AirPower that it had the potential to change the entire wireless charging industry. Putting three charging pads in close proximity won't do that, but AirPower's technology could -- assuming they can get it right in short order.

But that brings up another point. There was no reason to debut this a year ago, even if they thought they were close. Sure, this is a failure in execution, but it is a worse one from a public perspective, and it didn't have to be.

It doesn't really matter that the erroneous assumption being made by the column-inches being slain today is that Apple doesn't have the ability to plop three simple coils next to each other -- because that clearly isn't what Apple is trying to get done, here. This all could have been avoided.

We're certain that Apple has dozens of products in their skunkworks that we don't know about. A lot of hate and discontent could have been bypassed, had the AirPower stayed behind the tablecloths that Jony Ive plunks down when press comes to visit his bunker.

Multiple co-operative flux generators is clearly a tough nut to crack. It'll be tasty when it arrives, though.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 24
    Honestly, is this AirPower thing a solution looking for a problem? In the picture, something is apparently charging three things. Why not have three zones where things get charged and let the things charge on the three zones? How much added "convenience" is introduced by allowing things to be placed more or less randomly on a pad?

    flashfan207elijahgjony0
  • Reply 2 of 24
    Thank you!  Nice explanation.

    And I think Apple is taking your warning not to over-promise literally.  This 2018 presentation seemed more reserved than previous ones -- less on promises (which were very few) and more on tangible, available now products and features -- or at least those with a definite promise date.   And, even iOS12 is partly a release to increase stability and efficiency rather than functionality.
    newBelieverarthurbacaladanianjony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 24
    Great Scot!  They should have gone with the flux capacitor instead of the flux generator.  They could have simply taken the battery back in time to when it was charged.   ;)
    jbishop1039stompynewBelieverpscooter63llamajony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 24
    williamh said:
    Great Scot!  They should have gone with the flux capacitor instead of the flux generator.  They could have simply taken the battery back in time to when it was charged.   ;)
    You’d probably literally need Time Machine backups for that to work properly hahaha. 
    space2001jony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 24
    Apple needs to stop shooting itself in the foot. Every time the pre-announce post Steve, it has not turned out well. Yes everyone wants to know what Apple is working on, but everyone hate hearing what they could have an not getting it and claim how hard is it to do this.


    As it was pointed out, Apple is not just putting in 3 coils and calling it a day forcing end users to make sure they get everything lined up correctly and hope it is charging. I already has situation of not getting the iPhone on a charging surface not aligned properly and not charging, or it was and got bump slightly and stop charging. Apple is probable trying to make it so you can put a device anywhere on the pad and it will charge. A lot harder problem to solve verse put in 3 coils and putting a target on the pad and saying place your device here and only here.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 24
    Could be a case of the engineering team responsible for this were convinced that it would be ready, and Cook decided to show it based on their claims.
    GeorgeBMacwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 24
    williamh said:
    Great Scot!  They should have gone with the flux capacitor instead of the flux generator.  They could have simply taken the battery back in time to when it was charged.   ;)
    Perhaps it's the one-point-twenty-one-jiggawatts issue rearing it's ugly head?
    lolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 24
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 6,451member
    Could be a case of the engineering team responsible for this were convinced that it would be ready, and Cook decided to show it based on their claims.
    As has happened many times in the tech universe, marketing wrote a check that engineering bounced.
    GeorgeBMacentropysjony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 24
    Or there are delays to incorporate apple’s implementation in the Qi standard.
    I do recall that Tim said something about ‘having to submit a proposal to the Qi standard group with the tech apple added to the standard’.  Maybe that is still not solid?
    lowededwookiecaladanianwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 24
    maestro64 said:
    Apple needs to stop shooting itself in the foot. Every time the pre-announce post Steve, it has not turned out well. Yes everyone wants to know what Apple is working on, but everyone hate hearing what they could have an not getting it and claim how hard is it to do this.


    As it was pointed out, Apple is not just putting in 3 coils and calling it a day forcing end users to make sure they get everything lined up correctly and hope it is charging. I already has situation of not getting the iPhone on a charging surface not aligned properly and not charging, or it was and got bump slightly and stop charging. Apple is probable trying to make it so you can put a device anywhere on the pad and it will charge. A lot harder problem to solve verse put in 3 coils and putting a target on the pad and saying place your device here and only here.
    I have a qi stand and works every time, horizontally or vertically....plug it to iPad charger and BOOM....charge quickly 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 24
    zoetmbzoetmb Posts: 2,342member
    In spite of the technical and engineering hurdles, I have to wonder why a company with all of Apple's resources can't get it done.   While 9 mothers can't make a baby in one month, I've always been bemused when I've read that some of the Apple development teams are actually quite small.    According to reports, Apple has 123,000 worldwide employees.  Aside from support, internal IT, HR and sales, what the hell do they all do?   Apple still has a quite small product line compared to most other manufacturing companies.  
    caladanian
  • Reply 12 of 24
    It does look bad with no mention at all. However, Apple DID introduce new AirPods on intro video (with Hey Siri and presumably water proofing). So they’re kinda plan for AirPower for this event?
    From my experience, video like this could take 3-5 months from planning to finish. That would be 3-5 months ago Apple was still convinced themselves they could make it? That doesn’t sound too bad for the product after all. 
    edited September 13 patchythepiratecaladanianwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 24
    djsherly said:
    Honestly, is this AirPower thing a solution looking for a problem? In the picture, something is apparently charging three things. Why not have three zones where things get charged and let the things charge on the three zones? How much added "convenience" is introduced by allowing things to be placed more or less randomly on a pad?

    My thoughts exactly. I’d say having multiple charge sections on one pad would still be quite convenient. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 24
    williamh said:
    Great Scot!  They should have gone with the flux capacitor instead of the flux generator.  They could have simply taken the battery back in time to when it was charged.   ;)
    Who has time to look for an old clock tower every time they need to charge their device. This is Heavy Doc. 
    GeorgeBMaclolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 24
    zoetmb said:
    In spite of the technical and engineering hurdles, I have to wonder why a company with all of Apple's resources can't get it done.   While 9 mothers can't make a baby in one month, I've always been bemused when I've read that some of the Apple development teams are actually quite small.    According to reports, Apple has 123,000 worldwide employees.  Aside from support, internal IT, HR and sales, what the hell do they all do?   Apple still has a quite small product line compared to most other manufacturing companies.  
    You need to stop and think about what apple produces: pencil. watch. ipad. iphone. headphones. airpods, chargers. speakers. apple tv. macbook. imac. keyboards. mice (mouses?). a gazillion little accessories. Dongles. And that's just hardware. There's also three OS's, and hundreds of apps, websites in multiple languages, developer tools.  That's just software. There's also support, marketing, training, divisions for education, business, research, and so on. 

    If there's one thing I've learned in over three decades writing software, engineering teams are often much, much smaller than you might imagine. I've known some very successful, very expensive software from hundred million dollar companies that was developed and maintained by just three or four people. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if the charging pad team was made up of just three or four full time engineers.

    Even though Apple is huge, they create a tremendous amount of stuff
    pscooter63caladanianlolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 24
    lkrupp said:
    Could be a case of the engineering team responsible for this were convinced that it would be ready, and Cook decided to show it based on their claims.
    As has happened many times in the tech universe, marketing wrote a check that engineering bounced.
    Yep!  And that is also the way of lesser companies:  where marketing dreams up a product and the engineers are told to design and build it -- as in "make it work".   So, if they want to keep their jobs they build it.   It's crap, but it's built and the marketers go on to sell it as some great new innovation.

    Apple has always resisted that and it sets them apart.  
    johntwolffwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 24
    djsherly said:
    Honestly, is this AirPower thing a solution looking for a problem? In the picture, something is apparently charging three things. Why not have three zones where things get charged and let the things charge on the three zones? How much added "convenience" is introduced by allowing things to be placed more or less randomly on a pad?

    My thoughts exactly. I’d say having multiple charge sections on one pad would still be quite convenient. 
    Apple’s ability is not just making great products it’s making great products that are simple to use. By having three coils you then limit where devices can be placed and in doing so add a level of complexity that is not Appl’s way.

    The approach of current technology is largely limit to specific locations the devices... for example the Apple Watch has a little stand off the main unit where it is placed in order to charge it. But people don’t want to fiddle around as they place their devices down at night to charge. The ability to just plonk a device down where it is is much more user friendly.
    caladanianwatto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 24
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,761member
    Very interesting and thanks for the links to the overview. What they are describing is similar in concept to electromagnetic or sound beamforming but done in the magnetic flux domain. They are using an array of transmitter coils, with some being out-of-phase, to allow them to create and "steer" via superposition the peaks & valleys of the resultant magnetic flux field to maximize the magnetic coupling to charging devices over a wider range of orientations (and also to also reduce core losses that generate heat). The use of cooperative and compensation coils/windings to steer or realign magnetic fields is a long established technique used in conjunction with high power industrial motors and generators. To see these techniques employed in Apple products is totally fascinating for me. In fact, with Apple heavily invested in RF design and transformer technology they are now getting into technical areas that have been fairly narrow areas of specialization for electrical engineering (EE) programs and professionals.    

    When I first saw the AirPower I assumed it had multiple independent charging zones and didn't realize that it was one big zone that can tolerate different physical orientations. I'm sure they will work out the issues and eventually get to a releasable product. If the demos worked from a charging standpoint they may be dealing with core loss and heat issues. Sometimes engineers (and product managers) get all excited about the functional aspects of what they are working on, i.e., "it works!" but then the testing and productization folks step in and rain on their parade after much closer scrutiny of all of the quality and regulatory attributes that the product has to meet.  
    pscooter63watto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 24
    djsherly said:
    Honestly, is this AirPower thing a solution looking for a problem? In the picture, something is apparently charging three things. Why not have three zones where things get charged and let the things charge on the three zones? How much added "convenience" is introduced by allowing things to be placed more or less randomly on a pad?

    I think it’s a big convenience. I don’t know how many times I’ve set my X on a charging pad just to come back an hour later and still see it on low battery because it wasn’t placed just right on the pad. It’s very annoying. Being able to just drop it anywhere on the pad, in any orientation would be awesome. I actually got some annoyed that this happened frequently that I got rid of the charging pad and got a charging stand instead. 
    caladanianwatto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 24
    djsherly said:
    Honestly, is this AirPower thing a solution looking for a problem? In the picture, something is apparently charging three things. Why not have three zones where things get charged and let the things charge on the three zones? How much added "convenience" is introduced by allowing things to be placed more or less randomly on a pad?


    I was wondering about this as well. Just silk screen two gray lines on it and you have to put the device in one of the 3 'zones' as you mentioned. My only question would be weather you can draw enough power within the standard. Some savvy accessory maker should make something like what you've mentioned.
    jbdragonwatto_cobra
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