Why Apple may go its own way with wireless charging

apple iphone 6 6plus, Apple Watch

The iPhone 6, 6 Plus and the Apple Watch.

Credit: Apple

IHS expects wireless charging in mobile phone handsets to top 100 million units this year

When the iPhone 5 was launched in 2012, I wrote an analysis about what it had and what it lacked; most notably, it didn't support wireless charging.

At the time, the first of the big-name smartphone makers -- such as Nokia -- had just rolled out wireless charging. Since then, scores of other smartphones and mobile devices have adopted native wireless charging.

And still, Apple stands fast.

Neither of last fall's iPhone 6 models offer resonant wireless charging. Nor does the just-announced Apple Watch. Instead, the Apple Watch offers tightly coupled, magnetic inductive charging, which still requires a cord.

apple watch wireless charging Apple

The new Apple Watch uses magnetc inductive charging, which requires a cord. But it does allow for a sealed watch case.

Notably, there's a wireless charging standards war going on with three industry groups touting their own specifications -- some more widely adopted than others. Some experts believe Apple is waiting for the dust to clear before choosing one.

Apple, however, is not big on adopting someone else's standards. Case in point: the Micro-USB connector. While most major smartphone manufacturers were adopting it, Apple rolled out its own Lightening connector.

Even in Europe, where the European Parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee voted in a resolution to require all companies to make the same type of charger -- the Micro-USB -- Apple stuck with its own flavor.

"Apple has never bowed to a standards war. Apple does what they want," said John Perzow, vice president of market development for the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which promotes Qi, the most widely adopted wireless charging standard.

Qi currently supports inductive, or tightly coupled wireless charging; that means a device must be placed in a specific spot on a charging pad. However, a soon-to-be-released extension to the Qi specification will support resonance, or loosely coupled charging, which will enable greater spatial freedom on charging pads and other devices.

"Let's say for a second that Qi already launched its extension and could charge resonantly from a couple inches away," Perzow said. "I still don't think Apple would use it; then anyone could make a cool wireless charger for the Apple Watch, and Apple would lose revenue."

"I don't think they'll adopt anybody's standard," Perzow added.

Apple's own flavor

Over the last decade, Apple has filed several patents on wireless charging.

In 2005, an Apple patent described technology for an iPod using zero-contact induction for not only charging but data transfer -- most likely to manage device charging.

In a 2012 Apple patent filing, the company described a near field magnetic resonance (NFMR) power supply "arranged to wirelessly provide power to any of a number of suitably configured devices."

Apple wireless charging Apple

Apple's wireless charging diagram based on a 2012 patent filing.

Apple's patent description indicated a charging distance of about one meter, which could be projected out from a desktop computer such as the iMac to power peripheral devices such as a wireless mouse.

According to MacRumors, Apple has also been eyeing a company called WiTricity, which licenses a magnetic resonance charging technology that can be projected over several feet away. Apple did not return a request for comment on wireless charging.

As Apple researches wireless charging, competitors charge ahead. Earlier this month, Samsung, Apple's chief smartphone rival, announced that its new flagship Galaxy 6 and S6 Edge will have native wireless charging.

The Galaxy 6 and S6 Edge will combine two wireless charging specifications, Powermat (Power Matters Alliance or PMA) and the Qi standard. IHS Research believes Samsung's choice of two specs is "an interesting step" that will help its phones be compatible with a growing wireless infrastructure in places like Starbucks and McDonalds -- and shortly, even in IKEA furniture.

This year, IHS expect shipments of wireless charging receivers in mobile phone handsets to top 100 million units.

It's not that Apple doesn't understand the advantages of wireless charging. In its 2012 patent filing, it wrote, "one of the advantages of a wirelessly powered local computing environment is the potential to provide an enhanced user experience.

"For example, by doing away with clumsy and annoying cables and eliminating the need to replace batteries, an easy to use and efficient local computing environment can be provided to the user," the patent description says.

"Apple has filed a number of patents -- greater than five -- on wireless charging, so they've been working toward that," Perzow said.

So will Apple miss the boat if it insists on a proprietary charging specification?

David Green, research manager for Power Supplies & Wireless Power at IHS Research, said wearable technology like the Apple Watch is less sensitive to a proprietary solution with a specific cradle or dock than it would be for a mobile phone, "where interoperability is clearly a bigger area of focus."

"So on the face of it, it's not necessarily a mistake at this stage for Apple not to include a [wireless charging] compliant solution with the Watch," he wrote in an email reply to Computerworld.

If Apple were to roll out its own specification, then it could charge accessory makers, such as VOXX Electronics, royalty fees to license its technology under its MFi certification program (MFi stands for "Made For iPhone, iPad, etc...).

Predicting what Apple may do based on its past is difficult, Green said. On one hand, it has a history of applying proprietary solutions, "but on the other hand, the mobile phone market calls for an interoperable solution."

This story, "Why Apple may go its own way with wireless charging" was originally published by Computerworld.

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