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Apple to unveil iPhone wireless charging with AirPods

Move comes as Chinese suppliers fuel competition for share of earphone supply chain

The Apple iPhone 7 and AirPods are displayed during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, U.S.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Users of iPhones will soon be able to wirelessly charge their handsets using the charging case for Apple's popular AirPods wireless earphones, according to an industry source familiar with the plan.

"The product could be available as soon as the end of this year," this person said. "However, the schedule is still subject to change."

The development would add to Apple's much-anticipated AirPower wireless charging mat, unveiled last year and due out soon, bringing chief designer Jony Ive's call in 2016 for a "truly wireless future" a step closer. Apple has previously said it is working on a wireless charging case for AirPods that could also be topped up with the AirPower pad, though it gave no further details.

Apple did not respond to Nikkei Asian Review's request for comment.

Last year, the Cupertino, California-based company also said that the iPhone 8 range and later models would have wireless charging capabilities.

First introduced in 2016 with a price tag of $159, AirPods are a pair of wireless earphones that fit inside a case in which they can be recharged. Until now, the lithium-ion battery inside the case has to be recharged using a power cord.

While Apple has not revealed exact shipment numbers for the AirPods, Chief Executive Tim Cook has called the accessory a "runaway success." Sales are expected to reach as many as 28 million units this year, according to another industry source familiar with Apple's plan. The company shipped roughly 20 million units from when the product became available at the end of 2016 through 2017, this person said.

The robust demand for AirPods is spurring competition among Apple suppliers to grab more orders for the device as sales momentum slows for other hardware, including the flagship iPhone. Apple has also been trying to diversify its supply chain in recent years.

China's Luxshare Precision Industry, known as Luxshare-ICT, broke into the supply chain in November 2017, ending the dominance of Taiwan's Inventec as the sole assembler of AirPods. GoerTek, a Chinese audio-component maker, could become the third supplier beginning in the fourth quarter of this year, industry sources said.

Luxshare-ICT has emerged as one of the most notable China-based Apple suppliers. Cook visited the company's plant in Kunshan, in eastern Jiangsu Province, last December, praising founder Grace Wang as "an extraordinary example of a Chinese dream being realized." Wang began as a factory worker with Foxconn Technology Group, rising to lead a tech company operating in more than 20 locations globally.

Cook's visit was seen as unusual because he typically tours major iPhone assemblers such as Foxconn -- as Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry is better known.

Inventec could still secure a majority of orders for AirPods this year, Arthur Liao, an analyst at Fubon Securities, said in a recent research note. "However, Inventec could likely face price-cutting pressure from Apple that could hurt its profit margin this year -- similar to its Taiwanese contract manufacturing peers such as Foxconn, Pegatron and Wistron," Liao said.

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