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
‘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.”
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