Will ‘Ap­ple day’ switch us all on to wireless charg­ing?

An iphone that gets power without be­ing plugged in may be a defin­ing mo­ment, says James Tit­comb

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business -

‘We be­lieve in a wireless fu­ture,” Sir Jonathan Ive’s voice rang out over the slickly-pro­duced video. Ap­ple’s de­sign chief, speak­ing last Septem­ber, was an­nounc­ing the com­pany’s new Blue­tooth-pow­ered head­phones, de­signed to work with an up­dated iphone that had lost its phys­i­cal au­dio port.

While Ap­ple’s de­ci­sion to drop the iphone’s head­phone jack drew con­tro­versy at the time, ea­gle-eyed fol­low­ers be­lieve it may have been the first hint of things to come.

Next month, when Ap­ple un­veils its lat­est ham­per of new gad­gets in Cal­i­for­nia, another wire may be cut. At least one of the com­pany’s iphones is ex­pected to fea­ture tech­nol­ogy that al­lows it to be charged without be­ing plugged in, sim­ply by plac­ing it on an elec­tro­mag­netic sur­face.

Wireless charg­ing will hardly be a tech­ni­cal break­through for Ap­ple. Phones from ri­vals in­clud­ing Sam­sung have fea­tured it since 2015, as has Ap­ple’s own smart­watch. Elec­tric tooth­brushes have used the same ba­sic tech­nol­ogy for years. But noth­ing quite has the ca­chet, or the in­flu­ence that the iphone does. Sup­port­ers of wireless power, who be­lieve it could have an ef­fect equal to the rise of Wi-fi in­ter­net net­works, say Ap­ple’s an­nounce­ment will be a Henry Ford mo­ment. At the Lon­don of­fice of Chargifi, a wireless power start-up, it is re­ferred to in hushed tones as “Ap­ple day”.

Dan Bladen, the com­pany’s founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive, says the idea for his firm came when trav­el­ling around South Amer­ica and In­dia with his wife. Wireless mo­bile net­works and pub­lic Wi-fi points had be­come plen­ti­ful and re­li­able, but it was much harder to find a place to charge their phones when they wanted to reach fam­ily mem­bers. The com­pany, whose in­vestors in­clude In­tel, works with the likes of Pret a Manger and ho­tels in New York and San Fran­cisco to in­stall wireless charg­ing points, and has de­vel­oped soft­ware that lets them man­age the net­works. Right now, buy­ers are more cu­ri­ous than com­mit­ted, but the re­lease of a wire­lessly-charged iphone is likely to change that.

Where Ap­ple leads, its com­peti­tors typ­i­cally fol­low. In 1998, it re­moved the floppy disk drive from its imac com­put­ers; and the tech­nol­ogy soon be­came ob­so­lete. The same hap­pened to the CD-ROM drive and the wired in­ter­net port as Wi-fi net­works grew.

It did the same with the iphone, re­fus­ing to sup­port re­mov­able bat­ter­ies and last year ditch­ing the ana­logue head­phone jack. For the most part, the in­dus­try has fol­lowed. The be­lief is that the same will hap­pen with wireless charg­ing, mak­ing it a ubiq­ui­tous smart­phone fea­ture com­pared to the rar­ity it is to­day. Even­tu­ally, Bladen be­lieves, wireless charg­ing will be as com­mon across of­fices, pub­lic spa­ces and restau­rants as wireless in­ter­net is to­day. “An en­tire gen­er­a­tion doesn’t think about plug­ging in an Eth­er­net ca­ble, our kids won’t grow up plug­ging into a charger,” he says.

At present, wireless charg­ing re­quires a de­vice to be placed on a sur­face in or­der to charge it, what the in­dus­try calls near-field charg­ing. The sur­face, con­nected to a mains sup­ply, cre­ates a mag­netic field that is picked up by elec­tri­fied cop­per coils, at­tached to a de­vice’s bat­tery.

This is a step­ping stone to­wards power be­ing beamed around a room, even­tu­ally al­low­ing a phone to charge in a pocket, but this is still years away. Near-field or “in­duc­tive” charg­ing will take off first. Scep­tics say it will have lit­tle ben­e­fit in phones, and that hav­ing to place a hand­set on a mat of­fers lit­tle prac­ti­cal im­prove­ment over plug­ging one into a charg­ing ca­ble. Re­search from Bar­clays sug­gests con­sumers value the idea well be­low other po­ten­tial fea­tures such as greater mem­ory or a big­ger screen.

Think­ing big­ger may un­lock wireless charg­ing’s real po­ten­tial. By the end of this year, Mercedes will start sell­ing a ver­sion of its hy­brid S-class that can be charged by park­ing it on top of a mat. Ford and BMW have said they will do the same. Be­ing able to drive on to a charg­ing mat in a car park could help end “range anx­i­ety” that threat­ens to hold fully-elec­tric cars back. High­ways Eng­land has gone a step fur­ther, com­mit­ting to tri­alling roads that charge a car as it drives by the end of the year.

Self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles would make wireless charg­ing even more cru­cial. While a hu­man driver may groan about hav­ing to get out of their car and plug a charg­ing wire in, cars without a driver will be in­ca­pable of it. The fleets of elec­tric driver­less taxis that Uber and Lyft aim to op­er­ate, if they are to be truly au­ton­o­mous, will have to find their own way of re­fu­elling.

As will self-fly­ing elec­tric drones. Ama­zon, which is tri­alling drone de­liv­er­ies in Cam­bridgeshir­e, has said its au­ton­o­mous air­craft have a range of just 30 min­utes, mean­ing they will need con­stant recharg­ing to make re­peated de­liv­er­ies. Land­ing on strate­gi­cally-dot­ted charg­ing pads could pro­vide a so­lu­tion.

Wireless charg­ing is a rel­a­tively small in­dus­try to­day. A re­port from KPMG last year put the size of the mar­ket in 2014 at $500m (£385m). But this was ex­pected to grow at an av­er­age of 65pc a year to $12.6bn by 2020. It pointed to an as­ton­ish­ing the US needs to cre­ate jobs.

The re­al­ity, of course, is that dead­lock in Wash­ing­ton means that very lit­tle – if any­thing – has ac­tu­ally been done.

But there are in­di­ca­tions that busi­ness con­fi­dence is ris­ing. For ex­am­ple, the Wells Fargo/gallup small busi­ness in­dex is at its high­est level for 10 years.

“There is an el­e­ment of a re­ac­tion to the fact that there aren’t the reg­u­la­tions com­ing out of Wash­ing­ton that there would have been from a Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said John Quelch, dean of Mi­ami Busi­ness School.

But he also be­lieves much of the good news has been part of the nat­u­ral eco­nomic cy­cle.

There is lit­tle ev­i­dence so far that Trump’s other cam­paign pledge – boost­ing in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing – has had any im­pact.

The lat­est fig­ures, ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus Bureau data, show that in­vest­ment in gov­ern­ment con­struc­tion has been fall­ing. In the sec­ond quar­ter of this year, it equated to 1.4pc of the US eco­nomic out­put – the low­est level on record.

Most econ­o­mists ar­gue it will take time for the real im­pact of Trump’s poli­cies to be felt in the US.

But for the time be­ing, the con­sen­sus is that Amer­ica’s re­cov­er­ing econ­omy is part of a longer term world­wide trend.

“What con­cerns me is we have had this nine-year rally. Ba­si­cally, the FTSE is up 122pc, Dax 201pc, the Dow 233pc, Stan­dard & Poor’s and the Nas­daq 262pc,” said David Buik, mar­ket com­men­ta­tor with Pan­mure Gor­don in Lon­don.

“It is very rich, but you have had in­ter­est rates at vir­tu­ally zero for nearly nine years and quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing is the drama­tis per­sonae in all of this.

“Trump has got vir­tu­ally noth­ing through Congress. Health­care has been a dis­as­ter. A mil­lion jobs have been cre­ated since he be­came pres­i­dent. But this is not re­ally down to him apart from the fact that hope springs eter­nal.” growth in the num­ber of pa­tents re­lated to wireless charg­ing that are now filed ev­ery year, from 32 in 2006 to 1,048 in 2013.

De­spite com­pa­nies now putting re­sources in, the tech­nol­ogy risks be­ing held back by squab­bles over stan­dards. Two dif­fer­ent in­dus­try bodies – The Wireless Power Con­sor­tium and Air­fuel Al­liance – are propos­ing dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies, which threaten to be­come the VHS ver­sus Be­ta­max of wireless power.

Deloitte also points out that the ra­di­a­tion cre­ated by wireless charg­ing points is higher than that from mo­bile phones, which have cre­ated their own health scares. Most ex­perts be­lieve the tech­nol­ogy is safe, but sen­sa­tional scare sto­ries could well put users off.

The shops and restau­rants that in­stall wireless charg­ing points may also be un­will­ing to give elec­tric­ity away for free. Chargifi, whose soft­ware al­lows com­pa­nies to man­age wireless power net­works, says it will be up to in­di­vid­ual firms to de­cide what the trade-off should be. Bladen says many may pro­vide it for free – based on early ev­i­dence that peo­ple spend 43 min­utes charg­ing their phones on its net­work, valu­able dwell time for cof­fee shops, pubs and shop­ping cen­tres look­ing for ways to en­cour­age vis­i­tors to stay.

Few have com­mit­ted to it whole­heart­edly. Star­bucks has wireless charg­ing points in nine out­lets in Lon­don, and Pret a Manger in three. But all eyes are on the iphone to take the lead. “Once it hap­pens ev­ery­one will say ‘wow that hap­pened re­ally quickly’,” Bladen says. “It will be Ap­ple that plants the flag for this.”

Ap­ple’s em­brace of wireless charg­ing could drive the po­ten­tial of the elec­tric car sec­tor

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