As we approach the expected September iPhone event, the gadget world is abuzz with questions: Will there be two new iPhones or three? How much will the presumed high-end OLED model cost? Will facial recognition fully replace Touch ID, or merely be an alternative? And: will the iPhone finally get wireless charging?
But that last one is a loaded question because "wireless" charging is in the eye of the beholder.
Sure, you can place a Samsung Galaxy and many other Android phones onto a charging pad without having to plug the phone into any charging cable. And those same pads are increasingly built into countertops at coffee shops, burger joints and even furniture you can buy at Ikea. But those pads still need to be plugged into a wall outlet. The wire is still there, it's just not attached directly to the phone.
That's a roundabout way of saying "wireless charging" is basically a misnomer. Except when it isn't: "True" wireless charging — in which batteries get juiced up at distances measured in meters, not centimeters — is a real-world technology, too.
Wireless charging over a distance could be the real tech game changer, allowing us to juice up our phones as soon as we walk into a room. The technology is also a boon to the ever-increasing number of smart devices in our lives, from portable speakers to hearing aids. It just needs to get over the pesky questions over whether it's safe — and actually show up in a mass-market consumer device.
So, before we posit the question as to whether the next iPhones will include wireless charging, let's start by untangling the different technologies that Apple might incorporate.
Inductive charging: Qi vs. Powermat
Widely used for years in cordless electric toothbrushes, inductive charging is the most common technology employed in most of today's "wireless" charging devices and accessories. There are two major standards in the space: Qi — named for a Chinese word that means energy and is pronounced "chee" — and Powermat.
Both standards are also working to incorporate magnetic resonance technology, which could charge over distances of up to 4 centimeters. That would, for instance, mean that aligning your phone to the charging pad "sweet spot" would be less of a hit-and-miss affair, or that the charging pads could be hidden behind thin layers of wood or plastic.
Qi has been incorporated into phones from a variety of manufacturers, and McDonald's has built Qi-compatible chargers into the furniture at its restaurants. Powermat-infused tables, meanwhile, can be found in some Starbucks and airport lounges.
The rivals are backed by two opposing standards organizations, too: The Wireless Power Consortium for Qi, and the AirFuel Alliance for Powermat. The latter was formed when Powermat and its Power Matters Alliance merged with a third, rival wireless standard (confusingly called the Alliance for Wireless Power, or A4WP) in 2014.
The good news is that the rivalry has been less of a zero-sum game in recent years. Samsung, for one, has made its recent high-end Galaxy phones (including the S7 and S8) compatible with both inductive charging standards, so you can juice it up on a Qi-powered counter at McDonald's and a Powermat-powered one at Starbucks.
'True' wireless charging: Energous and Powercast
Forget about 4 centimeters. How about charging from a distance of 4 meters? Or anywhere in an average-size room?
It's a pretty recent concept, but companies like Energous and Powercast are producing technology that can more accurately be called wire-free. Both use radio frequency (RF) energy, a charging method that works similarly to Wi-Fi, that enables devices to charge when within the range of a power transmitter.
Energous is the developer of WattUp, the wire-free technology that the company claims is capable of charging anything from a mobile device to various wearables like a hearing aid when located up to 15 feet (about 4.5 meters) from the transmitter. The first wire-free transmitter is expected to hit the market before the end of the year, according to CEO Stephen R. Rizzone.
"Besides mobility, the idea of charging at a distance is very, very important to IoT devices," said Rizzone. "Now what's happened, is that you no longer have to run a cable to them, nor do you have to have a large battery, that either has to be replaced or somehow recharged. You can have a much smaller battery because you're continually getting power from these transmitters."
But there's a common concern: is it safe? The Federal Communications Commission — which enforces the standards of the Food and Drug Administration that determine how much power is safe enough to be absorbed by human tissue — has approved two near-field Energous products since 2016. Furthermore, Rizzone says Energous anticipates FCC approval of its at-a-distance, mid-field solution "soon."
Powercast, the other true wire-free company, is likewise making strides. The company's Powercaster transmitters are already approved by the FCC, and they've been available since 2010 — but only in industrial, commercial and military markets.
PowerSpot, Powercast's new standalone transmitter created for consumer electronics, is still not available to consumers and isn't yet FCC approved. The company hopes to also bring it to the market before the end of the year.
"The goal is for consumers to simply place or hang all enabled items for recharging within range of a PowerSpot in their home or other public places," said Charlie Greene, chief operating & technical officer of Powercast.
Which way will Apple go?
All of this brings us back to the iPhone issue. Will Apple finally jump on board the wireless power bandwagon? If so, which horse will it back: Qi, Powermat — or door no. 3? (You can buy third-party cases for the iPhone that enable wireless charging, but the feature has yet to be built in.)
To date, Apple has two products that use inductive charging: the Apple Watch and the AirPods wireless headphones. Both of them, however, come with their own chargers, and neither appears to work with any third-party wireless chargers — Qi, Powermat or otherwise.
And while Apple has a penchant for proprietary standards — iPhones use Lightning cables rather than the emerging USB-C standard, for instance — the news in February that Apple had joined the Qi-backed Wireless Power Consortium has some declaring that group the winner. However, Apple's statement at the time was more equivocal: "Apple is joining the Wireless Power Consortium to be able to participate and contribute ideas to the open, collaborative development of future wireless charging standards." (Neither Apple nor Qi responded to our requests for comment earlier this week.)
If Apple were to go with Qi, Powermat has implied it would do whatever it takes to be compatible. Powermat "will continue to innovate and develop new products and technology supporting all devices coming into the market" the company said in a statement. "We recognize Apple's ability to bring wireless charging into mainstream by the sheer volume of iPhones in the market." Put another way: Powermat wants to ensure that partners like Starbucks can service the tens of millions — and eventually hundreds of millions — of iPhone owners, just as they do for Android fans.
Could Apple wow the world with true long-distance wireless charging? Energous CEO Rizzone has long touted a "top five" consumer electronics partner, and the company received a $10 million investment from Apple component supplier Dialog Semiconductor. Leapfrogging straight from no wireless charging to true wireless charging would be an impressive feat, but a material product from a possible Apple/Energous partnership could also still be years away — if it ever materializes at all.
The good news is that the wait for Apple's wireless charging plans will be short. If the company sticks to its normal schedule, the new iPhones should be announced in the first two weeks of September. (Whatever wireless charging feature is announced, though, may be delayed a few more weeks, according to a rumor from July.)
The bad news? It may be more convenient, but wireless charging is far less efficient than a good old wired charger. A CNET test found that the Galaxy S8 took 3.5 hours to charge inductively, more than the typical 2 hours it takes with a standard USB-C cable.
But fans of quick wired charging won't have to worry. Unlike the headphone jack, we expect the iPhone's Lightning port won't be going away anytime soon.
Update, 12:03 p.m. PT: This story has been updated to clarify the status of FCC approvals on Energous products.
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