“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”.
Apple’s iPhone could soon be charged by simply placing it flat on a charging pad.
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.
Wireless charging is a relatively small industry today. A report from KPMG last year put the size of the market in 2014 at $US500 million ($633 million). But this was expected to grow at an average of 65 per cent a year to $US12.6 billion by 2020. It pointed to an astonishing growth in the number of patents related to wireless charging that are now filed every year, from 32 in 2006 to 1048 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.”