This week, Apple announced the iPhone X, a smartphone that looks and acts like none of its predecessors. But for all the flashy new design and features—and emotive piles of poop—the upgrade destined to make the biggest impact to your daily life may be the least heralded.
It’s wireless charging, and it’s coming not just to the iPhone X, but the new iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as well. There’s no point to more buildup, especially since smartphones first adopted the feature nearly five years ago. At this point, it’s not even niche; Samsung’s Galaxy line introduced it way back in 2014. Apple’s not just late to the wireless charging party—the lights are on, the playlist stopped, and everyone’s awkwardly waiting outside for an Uber home.
Apple’s belated entrance should still have a profound impact, though. Face ID may change how you interact with your device, and animoji may spice up your chats. But it’s the iPhone’s move into wireless charging—specifically, its embrace of the Qi standard—that could help reshape something on as grand a scale as public infrastructure itself.
We’re going to skim over the intricacies of the standards war that has plagued wireless charging (although if you truly want a deeper dive, this should help). The short version plays out pretty predictably: Two competing wireless charging technologies—Qi, pronounced “chee,” and another backed by the AirFuel Alliance—offer similar results without easy interoperability.
In recent years, the smartphone market has nudged toward Qi, thanks especially to Samsung’s commitment in its flagship Galaxy smartphones. Around 90 smartphone models use Qi today, as do a number of cars.
Not bad! But not enough.
“Where wireless charging really becomes a benefit for consumers is when it becomes ubiquitous, when everywhere I go I don’t worry about chargers coming with me, or running out of power,” says Paul Golden, a marketing executive with WPC, the consortium behind the Qi standard. “Every place I’m going I can just put my phone down and easily charge it, I don’t have to plug it in or anything.”
Efforts to make charging pads as commonplace as outlets exist, but not at scale. Aircharge, which makes wireless charging stations designed for public spaces, will upgrade over 1,000 McDonald’s locations in the UK through 2018. You can sometimes find wireless charging stations in assorted hotels, bars, and other public spaces where people scramble for a little extra juice.
But without an entire industry coalescing around one standard, these installations have misfired in the past, or not materialized at all. Starbucks backed the wrong horse in 2014, trialling an earlier form what would eventually become AirFuel tech in several of its stores only to find that customers couldn’t charge their phones. And public wireless charging pads in the wild remain an oddity for most—assuming you’ve even seen one.
Apple picking a side instantly changes that calculus. “I’ve had conversations with people in the hospitality industry, people in the automotive industry, and other manufacturers of smartphones, who were all waiting to see what Apple was going to do,” says Golden.
Yes, Samsung sells a lot of Galaxy devices. And yes, lots of Android devices have offered Qi wireless charging for years. They haven’t moved the needle, though. The iPhone can. If you need proof, just ask anyone who’s stayed in a hotel room for the last decade. The dock on the nightstand wasn’t microUSB. It was Apple’s proprietary 30-pin connector. Industries contort themselves into accommodate Apple. With the iPhone X, they’ll do it again.
“Something Apple is really good at is marketing a technology as new and exciting, and getting people onboard,” says Vicky Yussuff, wireless power analyst with IHS Technology. “It’ll definitely make a difference.”
Take the Charge
That difference looks mighty appealing. Imagine being able to leave your charging cable at home. Imagine topping off your battery by simply placing your phone on a table at any coffee shop, bar, airport, hotel, or fast food joint. Imagine charging pads in public parks, or every Uber and public bus having Qi transmitters built in.
FaceID may save you a half-second unlocking your smartphone, but the iPhone solidifying Qi as the wireless charging standard of choice will spare you from the sharper annoyances of a lost cord or a dead phone. And rather than introducing privacy and security concerns, it’s one less thing to worry about, full stop.
Most remarkable, given Apple’s history of proprietary standards (see: Lightning, 30-pin, Firewire, and on and on), is that the iPhone X followed the current. That was no guarantee, especially given how the company handled the first and second Apple Watch’s wireless charging.
“The technology that they used is essentially the exact same components as Qi, they just kind of tweaked it so that it only worked with their own proprietary charger,” says Yussuff. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if they chose to do an inductive technology that was proprietary again, like the Apple Watch.”
With Apple’s backing, Qi becomes a wireless charging Switzerland, as uncontroversial and universally embraced as Wi-Fi, offering battery relief no matter where you are, or what device you have.
The central question now seems less if the iPhone’s wireless charging will transform the world than how long it will take.
“At this stage we can’t forget there are still a large number of phones on the market that don’t yet have wireless charging and there are 715 million legacy iPhones in use that also don’t have wireless charging integrated,” says Stefano Piccioli, Aircharge’s marketing and PR manager.
Qi’s head start should help. Aircharge alone has installations at 5,000 venues, and Ikea sells furniture with Qi charging built right in. Now, though, companies will feel free to come off the sidelines.
“I think we’ll start scaling pretty rapidly from here,” says WPC’s Golden. “There was still that hesitancy to see what Apple’s going to do.”
Another incentive to join in? Unlike those increasingly useless 30-pin docks, the Qi standard requires backward and forward compatibility, meaning an charging pad installation won’t become obsolete unless Apple decides to jump ship a few years later. And companies like Aircharge offer optional real-time, networked monitoring of charging stations, for rapid replacement of glitchy systems.
Even the AirFuel Alliance, which Apple’s move essentially shuts out of the mobile market, took a “rising tide lifts all standards” approach. “This initial version of Apple’s wireless charging solution will introduce the benefits of wireless charging to millions of new users,” the group said in a statement, while also urging Cupertino to keep its options open down the road.
Like so many features it touts, Apple didn’t invent wireless charging. But its decision to finally offer it—and even more importantly, the form it will offer—have the opportunity to shape the future in the way that matters most: It just works.