iPhone 8, Qi Wireless Charging, and the Challenge of Open

on October 2, 2017
Reading Time: 3 minutes

There is a lot to like about the promise of wireless charging. That said, I’ve used wireless charging solutions from many smartphone manufacturers through the years, and I’ve never had a flawless experience with any of them. Unfortunately, the same is true with Apple’s latest offering with iPhone 8/8 Plus. In the few weeks, I’ve been using an iPhone 8 and the Mophie wireless charging pad I have woken up the next day to an iPhone that did not charge and has less than 10% battery at least several times a week. This last week alone it happened three times. For a myriad of reasons, from charging coils, to pad design, etc., when using this pad the iPhone and Mophie pad have to be aligned just right, or it won’t charge. You can’t just drop it down anywhere on the pad but instead need to align it just right. Where this impacts me, is throughout the night my phone may get a notification buzz and as a result will move off the sweet spot and then stop charging.

While I fully assume Apple will solve these problems with their charging pad, and I acknowledge much of the feedback I got on Twitter after mentioning this, that there are some charging pads that have more coils, and better design and therefore don’t have the same issues I’m describing. However, the larger point remains that this happened in the first place. There exist wireless charging pads consumers will buy (Apple sells this one I’m having issues in their stores) which will lead to unmet expectations with the product. This, in a nutshell, is the problem with standards at large, and open systems in particular.

Open solutions have their benefits. They solve problems for companies who are not capable of solving specific problems themselves and built up ecosystems. But they also regularly lead to inconsistent experiences. Wireless charging is one example of many where there can be exceptional and also really poor implementations of the standard. The result is consumers will end up having an inconsistent experience with the solution, and that can often turn consumers off altogether to a product or feature. This is part of my concern with the wide variety of Qi wireless charging solutions out in the world. We know from our research that wireless charging was a top three feature driving interest to the iPhone 8/8 Plus. There will exist products on the market that lead to experiences like mine and consumers will get frustrated. My fear is they become sour on the idea of wireless charging altogether and thus write it off entirely. With things like this, all it takes is one bad experience for consumers to lose trust in the feature.

While many third parties disliked Apple’s MFI accessory program, the guidelines Apple had in place for third parties to create accessories for their products led to consistent experiences with third-party products and Apple products. At the moment, we don’t have the same situation with Qi Wireless charging. While Apple’s embracing of the Qi standard means they will certainly get involved and help drive the standard and the technology forward, for now, Apple runs the risk of having third-party solutions not meet their standards of an accessory that will work with iPhones.

Further observations on the challenge of open ecosystems lead us to both Microsoft and Google now going full steam ahead with their own hardware roadmap. I do find it interesting that both the largest open software platforms in history have led the companies who created them into the hardware market. Both Android and Windows have such diversity in offerings that you can have a quality experience with the platform and a sub-par one all with the same software platform. Both platforms have a great deal of inconsistency in their user experience. They do try to manage this by defining the hardware and software specs as much as possible but in open systems, you can only define your standard so far and still allow your partners to differentiate. It is a double-edged sword.

I view both Microsoft’s and Google’s efforts in hardware as strong evidence of the challenge open systems create and their attempts to address those challenges and provide a “best of” experience that they hope others aspire to duplicate.

Ultimately, all of this is just a thought exercise to view things from the contrary view to open always wins, or open is the best. Open systems/standards are necessary for many things basic to consumer electronics. Things like ports for example. But I’d argue that wireless charging may not be one of them. In a few years, we may look back and the landscape has changed and the Qi standard has improved. But I, for one, would have been entirely content if Apple would have built a proprietary wireless charging solution, and simply made it the best customer experience by controlling all the variables. Apple has proved with their proprietary connectors that they don’t need to embrace standards to have their own third-party ecosystem grow and support their products.

While not a popular viewpoint, it can be argued that Apple’s products are a standard unto themselves. The sheer size of their customer base and the economics of those customers means whatever Apple does–even if proprietary–the industry will move and follow.