A Nikkei report this week has indicated that Apple plans to make the case of the next AirPods earphones a wireless charger for the iPhone. On the surface, the report offers more questions than answers. The current AirPods case can neither receive (a Qi-compatible case has been announced, but isn’t shipping) nor transmit wireless charging, and it has a comparatively puny 398mAh battery inside it, hardly enough to be a valuable external battery for an iPhone. Apple also has its AirPower charging mat finally arriving this September, so where would another wireless charger fit into its ecosystem anyway? I don’t think the advantages of the mooted AirPods charger are immediately obvious, so allow me to elaborate on them.
The thing is, if Apple seriously wants to build an iPhone with zero ports, which I’m inclined to think the company is at least looking into, it’ll need to have wireless charging readily available everywhere. The infrastructure of wireless charging spots at coffee shops, airports, and other public places remains spotty at best, even after Apple adopted the same standard as Samsung. For Apple to ditch the Lightning connector, which is primarily relied on for charging nowadays, it’d need to convince people to carry a wireless charging puck with them. And how do you do that? By making it something they already carry everywhere anyway: the AirPods case. (And if you use Lightning for audio, the AirPods case comes with... AirPods).
I was a late convert to the AirPods craze, but now I’m fully persuaded by their supreme convenience and effortlessness. Even as a devout Google Pixel user and a demanding audiophile, I no longer leave the house without my AirPods. Why would I, they’re ridiculously compact and can be worn for hours without trouble. No phone maker — not Apple, Samsung, Google, or [insert your favorite other manufacturer] — can make me walk around with a wireless charger in my pocket, but if the next iteration of the AirPods case happens to have wireless charging for my phone, I wouldn’t need to be cajoled into anything new. My sacrifice would be some added size and weight, and engineering a design that keeps those minimal would be key to the appeal.
Apple’s endgame is to have wireless charging as widespread as Wi-Fi is today
Most people imagine that this proposed AirPods case would convey its power to the iPhone, which is where protests arise about it being so tiny in capacity, but I envision it more as a portable AirPower mat. Whenever you want to charge your iPhone, you’d plug the AirPods case into a power outlet and charge that way. Sure, it sounds more fiddly than just plugging in the iPhone itself, but then Apple is the company that decided it hated wires enough to ditch the classic, ubiquitous headphone jack.
An AirPods case that can charge iPhones wirelessly is, to my mind, an elegant aid to pushing wireless charging to replace cables. Apple’s endgame is to have wireless charging as widespread as Wi-Fi is today. The company can force the change it wants by removing the iPhone’s charging port, which would prompt the hospitality industry and furniture makers to immediately make wireless charging spots a priority upgrade. The AirPods case charger would then be a reasonable temporary solution for iPhone users while they wait for wireless charging to show up everywhere. The AirPower slab would benefit greatly from such a move, too, as it’d become your home technology hub, with the AirPods serving as the portable fallback.
The Nikkei report indicates that Apple could have this new AirPods case out by the end of 2018, though the timeline might slip. So the iPhone’s Lightning connector is probably safe for another year, but 2019 might end up being the year when Apple gets its “truly wireless” iPhone wish, and the AirPods case could play an instrumental role in making that happen.