Wires are heading for the history books – Tim Cook said it himself when the Apple CEO announced its new cordless headphones last year: “Wireless is the future.”
Where Apple goes, the world follows – or rather, once Apple joins an emerging trend, we know the plane’s about to reach cruising altitude. But which wireless standard would Apple choose? And would Apple attempt to lock manufacturers and users into the Apple ecosystem, or would they go for a fully open standard?
The wait for these answers is finally over, as wireless charging was confirmed at Apple’s keynote on 12th September in Cupertino. The next generation of iPhones won’t need wires to charge, courtesy of Qi, the technology promoted by the Wireless Power Consortium. Qi will be deployed as a fully open standard that will work across all devices, just like Wifi and Bluetooth.
Apple’s move has been long-awaited in an industry where competing standards has hampered progress: “Apple has been flirting with wireless charging for a long time. They’ve been filing wireless charging patents for years,”
“Wireless charging is having its Wifi moment”, says Dan Bladen, the CEO and co-founder of Chargifi, a London-based startup that’s working with Acuity Advisors. It’s been hectic since Apple’s announcement, says Bladen; his software enables companies to manage wireless charging networks. Apple’s move has been long-awaited in an industry where competing standards has hampered progress: “Apple has been flirting with wireless charging for a long time. They’ve been filing wireless charging patents for years,” says Bladen. “Apple is making a big commitment to Qi – they say they’ll be adding to it and taking a leading role.”
Significant growth potential
Wireless charging is still a small industry: a KPMG report from last year puts the size of the 2014 market at $500m. But the wireless charging arena is expected to grow by a significant 65% a year, before reaching an anticipated $12.6bn by 2020. This is now looking more likely than ever, as Google also joined the Wireless Power Consortium shortly after Apple’s announcement. (Unhelpfully, Samsung had incorporated both Qi and the competing standard into the latest Galaxy models.) Bladen says he’s been taking many meetings with handset manufacturers in China lately: “They’re all coming off the fence and putting wireless charging into their smartphones.” It’s now increasingly clear which standard will become the winner, giving reassurance to smaller players who can’t afford the risk of potentially backing the wrong horse.
“They’re all coming off the fence and putting wireless charging into their smartphones.”
For Chargifi, Apple’s backing of Qi isn’t the main victory, as Chargifi is a member of both the Wireless Power Consortium and the competing AirFuel Alliance – it would have been good news either way. The victory is in the hope of standardisation, as large scale implementation of a new technology hinges on this. The stand-off between VHS and Betamax proved as much, or more recently, the battle for which standard would carry 4G: UMB, WiMAX, or LTE? It eventually landed on LTE, but in the meantime everyone who wanted to play had to invest in several contenders. The high cost of R&D has been a strong driver for the industry to become more collaborative.
There’s increasing acceptance that open standards will benefit everyone. The days where one major player can hope to dominate are over – the world is moving so fast that not even Apple can realistically expect to own their customers’ entire technology experience. The goal for wireless charging isn’t only for people to have it at home – if that were the case we’d all just use the charging pad that came with our device. The goal for is far bigger: to charge wirelessly in cafes, hotels, and offices – drop any device onto a single charging pad and watch the battery fill. “It feels like we’ve finally got permission to take off, now that standards are much less of an issue,” says Bladen, who co-founded Chargifi in 2013 alongside Charlie Cannell, now a Non-Executive Director.
The goal for is far bigger: to charge wirelessly in cafes, hotels, and offices – drop any device onto a single charging pad and watch the battery fill.
An early investor in Chargifi was Intel, which led the company’s $2.7 million Series A round in 2015 (joined by among others Techstars, R/GA Ventures, and ZipCar founder Brett Akker). As an early proponent of Wifi, Intel has a lot of experience developing new standards. “But I think wireless charging is going to have a faster on-ramp than Wifi, because we’re now living in a far more tech-enabled world,” says Bladen. “Power sits at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs – without power we don’t get connectivity.” Chargifi is now present in 19 countries, working with big name customers like Amazon which uses the technology in its offices, the Atlanta Falcons who have put it in their new stadium, it’s at Imperial College in London, and Pret a Manger is rolling it out across the chain.
“Power sits at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs – without power we don’t get connectivity.” – Dan Bladen, Chargifi
Next step: M&A
Apple’s wireless charging announcement has already caused ripples into M&A. “Other handset manufacturers have been offering wireless charging for some time and yet it the technology has struggled to become mainstream. With Apple’s recent announcement the market dynamics have changed almost overnight,” says Matthew Byatt, partner at Acuity Advisors.
“Investors are much more willing to back innovative companies like Chargifi, and they have been asking us for our ideas,” says Byatt, who’s also heard from large technology corporations scouting for wireless charging assets. “Acuity has a strong track record providing advice in this arena. It’s going to be an interesting few years for this part of the market.”
“Investors are much more willing to back innovative companies like Chargifi, and they have been asking us for our ideas,” says Byatt, who’s also heard from large technology corporations scouting for wireless charging assets.
The next horizon for wireless charging will be what’s called far-field charging: a technology that doesn’t require physical contact with the device. “I think [far-field] will revolutionise how we charge IoT sensors, smoke alarms and batteries in TV remote controls,” says Bladen. Emerging players in far-field include Ossia, PowerCast, and uBeam, who all use slightly different methods. A hot contender is Energous which, pending regulatory approval, plans to integrate its power broadcasting capabilities into Wifi routers as early as next year.
Small companies may have the tech, but they would need to bulk up before it could be deployed in the big leagues, meaning that M&A is looking ever more likely in the wireless charging space.
But far-field technology isn’t ideal for charging personal electronics as it’s much slower. “We believe there’ll be a blend of ambient charging in a room, alongside high-powered charging,” says Bladen, adding that Chargifi is compatible with far-field charging too. This technology is a few years away though, and there are issues around regulatory approval. Apple has long been rumoured to be working with Energous, although on its own the San Jose outfit is too small to supply Apple at the scale required for major manufacturing. Small companies may have the tech, but they would need to bulk up before it could be deployed in the big leagues, meaning that M&A is looking ever more likely in the wireless charging space.