The Apple Watch Series 6 is officially out, with the latest entry to Apple’s smartwatch lineup adding new features like a blood oxygen sensor and a brighter display. But the company has once again punted on a long-overdue addition to the Apple Watch: support for the universal Qi wireless charging standard.
It’s an incredibly frustrating limitation to the product, one that ensures that you can only use Apple’s chargers to recharge the device. More importantly, it means that you can’t use a standard wireless charging pad, despite the fact that Qi is used almost universally across the tech industry. Even Apple uses Qi charging for its iPhones and AirPods.
Just not the Apple Watch.
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Since the original Apple Watch was released in 2015, Apple has used one type of charger: a proprietary magnetic charging puck. And while the company does allow third-party companies to develop their own versions of Apple’s chargers and integrate them into their own products (while paying a licensing fee, of course, to Apple’s Made for iPhone program), today’s Apple Watch cables are virtually unchanged from when they were released five years ago.
The only real change: the addition of a USB-C variant to the lineup in 2018, although it’s still not the cable that Apple includes in the box, despite every single Apple laptop supporting the port standard for nearly all I/O options.
The insistence on sticking to its proprietary charger only gets worse when one considers Apple’s own environmental messaging. Apple proudly announced at its event that it would no longer include USB wall plugs in its Apple Watch boxes (even its luxury Edition and Hermès models) out of a concern over its environmental impact. It’s rumored to be doing the same on this year’s iPhone models.
But if Apple is concerned about the environment, it should also consider the millions of proprietary cables for those products. Apple used to exclusively use MagSafe chargers and Lightning cables across its entire product line, which can’t be used with anything else. But even that has started to change: MacBooks and most iPads use USB-C now; iPhones and AirPods (while still stuck on Lightning) offer standard Qi wireless charging. In theory, it’s possible to use a full portfolio of Apple’s devices now without ever touching an Apple charging standard — except for the Apple Watch.
There are difficulties in changing to a new standard. Apple historically tends to dislike change and enjoys the control it has over peripherals. There are engineering challenges with creating a magnetic charging disc that offers the ease of use of the current one while still supporting Qi pads.
And of course, there’s momentum: millions of people already have Apple Watch chargers, which Apple introduced years before it started to adopt the Qi standard, and changing to a new charging standard would mean either figuring out a way to ensure backwards compatibility or leaving them out.
None of these are insurmountable problems
But none of these are insurmountable problems. Apple has changed chargers before in a way that completely broke compatibility with years of products when it changed from its 30-pin connector to Lightning. And customers, somehow, managed to adapt. Switching Apple Watch chargers might even be easier, given that there’s a far smaller accessory ecosystem built around the Apple Watch than the iPod / 30-pin connector.
And while yes, there are no doubt engineering issues — especially as the number of sensors on the back of the Apple Watch continues to grow — they’re not insurmountable.
Apple already uses an inductive charging system that’s extremely similar to Qi, at least technically. (As iFixit’s teardowns show, Apple cleverly uses a copper disc around the other sensors for the inductive receiver and to prevent interference from the magnet.) John Perzow, VP of market development at the Wireless Power Consortium, claimed in 2015 that Apple is already using a modified version of the regular Qi standard for its charging. The Apple Watch Series 3 was even reported to work with some Qi pads at one point, although that seems to no longer be the case. Between the work Apple’s already done and the company’s engineering prowess, it doesn’t seem like an impossible task.
The longer Apple waits, the harder this will be
But Apple’s insistence on its own standards is becoming increasingly unsustainable, especially as USB-C has begun to actually unify charging for hardware across nearly all product segments. Apple itself has had to contend with these warring standards, with the inability to integrate the Apple Watch reportedly one of the biggest issues with its canceled AirPower charger. Even now, most wireless chargers have been forced to choose between lacking any Apple Watch support at all or figuring out an awkward way to shoehorn in a separate Apple charging pad.
But at some point, Apple needs to rip off the bandage and switch to a proper universal standard. And the longer it waits to do it, the harder that transition is going to be.