AirPower: a fiasco beyond imagination

If there was a Beginner’s Guide To Corporate Screwups, surely it would explore the tried-and-true ways for companies to shoot themselves in the foot.

Release buggy software. Fail to protect customer data. Run a bad ad. See your CEO arrested. So many possibilities!

But AirPower is not your stereotypical screwup. It’s something far grander. Never in history has Apple announced a product, gone silent about it for 18 months, and then killed it before it ever shipped.

At least it proves that Apple can be a true innovator in the area of self-immolation.

“Freedom to fail” is actually a liberating thing, essential to the Apple culture. In an internal meeting, I once heard Steve Jobs defend Apple’s large cash reserve by saying, “It gives us the freedom to jump as high as we want. If we fail, we will always have solid ground beneath our feet.”

Unfortunately, AirPower isn’t the “liberating” kind of failure. It’s just shocking and sad.

Bad planning? Bad vision? Bad strategy? Bad engineering? I don’t know exactly what to call it, but I’m pretty sure it starts with the word “bad.”

Even Apple’s statement about the end of AirPower was a failure. For some reason, Tim Cook let it fall to Senior VP Dan Riccio, whose emailed explanation concluded, “the future is wireless and we are committed to push the wireless experience forward.”

A limp defense from a company that just failed so publicly to push the wireless experience forward.

Some have defended Apple, explaining that in the end, physics simply made AirPower impossible.

Naively, I expect Apple-level engineers to have a pretty good grasp of what is possible and what is not—and to have that grasp long before Tim Cook goes onstage to announce the product.

If the engineers had their reckoning with the laws of physics a bit sooner, Apple wouldn’t be shipping those wonderful new AirPods in a box that shows off the amazing new AirPower. (A little icing on this cake of embarrassment.)

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Apple in this position. After the cylindrical Mac Pro was unveiled with fanfare, it actually did ship—but remained virtually unchanged for years. Apple finally explained that its design was running up against the laws of physics, as new technology was heading in a different direction. Now we’re in a protracted wait for a pro-level replacement.

There is no good way to look at the saga of AirPower. Eyes have rolled, jaws have dropped, and we can only wonder how on earth Apple could ever put itself in this position.

There are but two possibilities. Either Apple engineering truly believed it could build the product and discovered the awful truth later—or Apple knew that the technology wasn’t yet feasible and gambled that the engineers would ultimately work their magic.

If it’s the former, Apple engineering made a terrible judgment. If it’s the latter, Apple management made a terrible judgment.

So, Mr. Cook, it’s time to make sure this never, ever happens again. You acted quickly to fire Scott Forstall after the Maps fiasco. Please find the culprit in this AirPower Caper and at least give him/her a good whipping, Steve Jobs-style.

Unless you’re the culprit. In which case, well … let’s talk about that another time.