Don’t Believe the Hype About Apple’s Wireless Charging: The Tech Has Been Here for Years, and It’s Not Great

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Apple Unveils New IPhones, IPad And Apple TV With Touch Remote
Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Today, Bloomberg News is reporting an incredible scoop: Apple is working on phones that charge wirelessly, and we could be seeing them as soon as next year! Wowee zowee, that’s amazing!

Or at least, it would be if we hadn’t been hearing about this mythical “electricity over the air” for the last decade or so. The type of power transfer that Bloomberg is reporting is significantly different from the type of cordless charging on the market today, which still requires specific pieces of hardware — charging mats — to power up devices. What Apple is reportedly working on is a method “that would allow iPhones and iPads to be powered from farther away than the charging mats used with current smartphones.”

The transfer of electricity over the air is possible. In 2007, a team of MIT researchers “were able to transfer 60 watts with ∼40% efficiency over distances in excess of 2 meters.” But the consumer technology industry, which moves at a breakneck pace compared to other sectors, still hasn’t introduced any such method for mobile devices.

In 2009, Fast Company proclaimed “Wireless Electricity Is Here (Seriously),” running down the various methods. One of them was a device that “looks like a mouse pad and can send power through the air, over a distance of up to a few inches.”

Another company, WiTricity, comes up frequently in write-ups of wireless power — it was founded by some of the same researchers who conducted the 2007 MIT study. The company’s main thrust appears to be using magnetic fields as the method of transferring electricity. To be clear, they do have consumer hardware for wireless charging, but it’s not the sci-fi dream that reports might have you believe.

This is their method for charging an iPhone wirelessly as of two years ago.

This is impressive! You can turn any flat surface into a charging station. But it’s also important to look at what the system doesn’t tolerate — moving the device more than a few inches from the hotspot. This is the type of freedom that wireless charging currently offers.

The appeal of wireless power, to me at least, is that it affords a kind of mobility. I have this mental image of hanging around my apartment, my phone magically vacuuming up power no matter where I am. But that’s not the case as of now. Cord or no cord, you’ll still be tethered to a fixed point.

Work is slow and steady. Sure, Apple may develope some unforeseen breakthrough that blows the last decade of wireless power out of the water, but I doubt it. And if you think it’s coming next year, temper your expectations now.

There are some indications of what Apple might be working on. In 2010, they patented a method for charging a device up to one meter away from the power source. A whole three feet! I don’t mean to sound totally sarcastic; that’s very cool. At the same time, six-foot charging cables are pretty cheap on Monoprice.