Dave Hamilton, co-founder of MacObserver on Wireless Power and Apple

30 September 2019

Dave Hamilton co-founded both The Mac Observer and BackBeat Media, and he is producer and co-host of TMO’s Mac Geek Gab Podcast. He joins The Charge Guy to talk about wireless charging for Apple, the three devices he would most like to be wirelessly charged at home, and much more.

This episode was recorded on Sep 25, 2019

Yuval Boger (Chief Marketing Officer, Wi-Charge, @TheChargeGuy): Hello Dave, and thanks for joining me today.

Dave Hamilton (co-founder, MacObserver): Thanks for having me, Yuval, this is great.

Yuval: So, who are you and what do you do?

Dave: I’m Dave and I talk into a microphone. No, 21 years ago we started a website called The Mac Observer at macobserver.com and then about six years in, so 14 ish years ago, started a podcast called Mac Geek Gab, where we answer people’s technical questions, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m a nerd. I enjoy being a nerd, a geek. I like technology. I’m very fortunate because it is both my hobby and my job. It’s one of my hobbies and my job. So yeah, I’m a geek. So, I’m happy to be here and talk about all kinds of geeky things.

Yuval: That’s very good. So, Mac Observer is clearly not about mac and cheese, but rather about Apple. So, maybe I can ask you a couple of questions to that effect. So, there’s a new iPhone and it does not have, as far as I know, it does not have reverse wireless charging like some of the Samsung phone. Is that a disappointment to you?

Dave: You know, that’s interesting. It’s not, I guess I haven’t experienced a use case where reverse wireless charging would matter with a phone. You know, my battery life on my iPhone, and I’m very glad that the new iPhones, they’ve really done great things with both the hardware and the software to extend battery life even further than they had in the past, which is fantastic, but I don’t want to share my iPhone’s battery life with anything. So, I don’t know that I would miss that, I don’t miss that, but I’ve never had it. So, I fully accept that it might be one of those things where until you use it, you don’t understand how great this is, and then once you have it, it’s like, well, pry it from my cold, dead fingers, you know, if you dare. So, yeah.

Yuval: Okay, and were you disappointed with the cancellation of AirPower?

Dave: Well, to be fair, I actually kind of felt validated when AirPower was finally nixed. When they announced that it felt like somebody had cooked up those slides the day before that keynote, and that was what, two years ago? It was the fall, one of the fall keynotes, if I’m not mistaken, where I think they were going to talk about maybe the iMac Pro at the time. I can’t remember what it was supposed to be or maybe the iMac in general, and rumor had it that that got nixed and they felt like they had to do something. Whatever it was, it felt very rushed and it felt the most like vaporware that I’ve ever seen Apple announce onstage. They talked very theoretically, but it was clear that they didn’t even have one of these to show.

It was like, look at this cool thing. That is so not Apple, right? Apple does not talk about unannounced or unreleased products or products that aren’t ready, and Apple has tons of products that aren’t ready and many of which are never ready, and air power was one where it just felt wrong. Very different from what I expected from Apple, and as they were talking about it, it was like, based on what I know about… Gee, like, how are they going to do that and still not like burn me when I touched the pad, how is this even possible? My question in my head and I’m no expert, but I have enough experience with this stuff to know that physics is still physics. You know, my question was, how many Qi coils are they going to try and cram into this thing and just hope that you get close enough to one of them that your device will charge without overheating.

It just didn’t seem like there was a technologically feasible way for Apple to do that in the Apple way and make it a very elegant thing for their users, and, you know, something where it just always works and there are no technical issues and it just didn’t feel right, and Apple sort of proved me right on that one. So, sadly I was not disappointed at all. I didn’t think it was technically feasible and Apple proved me right, but I would love to be proven wrong. Don’t get me wrong like, I love it when somebody comes out with something that I thought was impossible because they found some new way to put some piece of tech together or whatever it is, that stuff always gets me going. So, I would love to be proven wrong on this, but I didn’t mind being proven right.

Yuval: So, Qi charging or what Apple was trying to do with AirPower, is contact charging, right? You need to bring the device to the charge or you need to align it carefully. It needs to be close enough, sometimes interfering with the phone case, but it’s probably just a stepping stone to long-range wireless charging, right? I like to use the wifi analogy, if you have parents and two kids, do they really want to get around the kitchen table and connect to the internet because there’s only one spot in the house that they can connect to the internet? Or do they do the same with charging? They don’t necessarily want to bring all their devices to a centralized charging spot. They just want the device to continue to be charged, not have to think about it.

Dave: Totally.

Yuval: So, if you were advising Apple, maybe you are, but if you were advising Apple, in what product would you suggest that they start with long-range wireless charging?

Dave: Oh, that’s a good question. Yeah, I’ve actually thought about this a lot, and just for clarity, I am not advising Apple, at least not in any way that I know of, maybe they’re listening to me, but probably not. So, I can speak freely here. I think, and again, I have enough technical knowledge that I often will limit my pipe dreams to those which I believe are realistic, right, and so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask, but maybe I’m the right person to ask. I think wireless keyboards, wireless mice, wireless trackpads, are the perfect place for Apple to start with that long or mid-range, even short-range, just not on the contact wireless charging because they’re low power devices, right?

They don’t require a ton of power and it’s a pain in the neck when you’re in the middle of something and your mouse or your trackpad says “Hey by the way you need to charge me now,” especially Apples mouse with the freaking connector on the bottom, like, who designs that, but that was like a very non-Apple style design to have the lightning port on the bottom of the mouse so you can’t use it while it’s charging, but yeah, I think AirPods would be another place where Apples short-range or mid-range wireless charging would be good. Obviously, I would love to have it on a phone and on my MacBook, but that’s a lot of power to send over the air in order to get any meaningful charge to it. So, I feel like the keyboard, the trackpad, the watch, like, those things are all super low power devices and I feel like could really benefit from some long-range or not connected charging for sure.

Yuval: And you probably saw one of the Wi-Charge videos where we actually do charge an iPhone, so we can deliver enough power for an iPhone.

Dave: Yeah, I’m curious about that, like, how long would it take to charge an iPhone to 50% or something with Wi-Charge?

Yuval: Well, I can answer that, but in a way that’s almost the wrong question and here’s why. I mean, when you do corded charging or Qi charging, there seems to be a race, “Oh, I can charge the phone in one hour. I can charge the phone in 45 minutes or 30 minutes,” and so on, and the reason people are so focused on charging speed is that you have to give up the device when you’re charging, right? So, you’re in the middle of the day, you’re out of battery, oh I got to put the device aside, I’m not going to be able to use it and so on. However, if you have a phone that just seems to charge itself because it charges while you have it, you put it on the desk, you put it on the kitchen counter, you put it next to you and it just charges. You don’t have to think about it anymore. The analogy is email, you know, you don’t know probably how long it takes an email with a large attachment to get where you’re going because it just magically appears there, and now it’s there, right? If you had to connect your phone to a cable to get the email, you would care a lot, but here you care less. So, long-range wireless for me is going to be slower than wired QI charging just like wifi is slower than wired internet, but it’s a completely different use case because the phone can just charge. You never have to think about charging more. You probably have other things to worry about than charging the phone.

Dave: No, it’s true. My phone could be charging now.

Yuval: It would take a few hours.

Dave: It would take a few hours, okay. That’s actually better than I thought and I’m glad you explained it that way. I asked the question sort of with that in mind and was just more looking for, okay I know it’s going to be the kind of thing where you get 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there and that sort of thing, just sort of building up. I was just more curious, okay, like, what do I get out of that 15 minutes and how is that going to functionally help me, and if you can charge to 50% in a couple of hours, that’s faster than I thought that it would be able to do, that’s not bad. So, you can get some meaningful charging happening in those 10, 15, 20, 30, minute blocks where your phones just sitting there while you’re recording a podcast or while you’re on the phone or something like that, or maybe not on the phone, but on a web, on a web call or something like that. So, yeah.

Yuval: Absolutely, and the other thing that’s possible is today the Qi charger has to be connected to power. So, it limits where you can put it, right, but imagine if you have a Qi charger and the Qi charger has a battery and the battery is refilled through long-range wireless charging, then all of a sudden you can put your Qi charger anywhere, put your phone, then get that fast charging through the Qi charger over where you put it, if that makes sense.

Dave: That does make sense. Yeah, for sure.

Yuval: So, just returning one last time to the keyboard that you mentioned. I mean, keyboard is a low power device, but I don’t know what the chicken is and what the egg is because maybe it’s a low power device because it’s battery-operated, It’s portable because people don’t want to lug the cable around, right, but then if you think, for instance, about a gaming keyboard that has lights and vibrations and maybe one day would have an integrated speaker and so on. Today, keyboards don’t have that functionality when they’re battery operated, but maybe now they could. So, I think that the interesting thing is to say, “Hey, I could actually add additional functionality.”

Dave: Yeah, that’s fair. Yeah, especially, you’re right, if you don’t have to operate within the limits of it only getting charged once every six months or something, yeah, that would be… Sure, yeah, that makes sense.

Yuval: Cool. So, the other thing I saw that you cover is speakers, smart speakers. I saw your note for instance on the Sonos Move and they seem to have like this really cool solution where a charging station that doesn’t look very difficult to charge. Would you say: Yeah, that’s good enough, or is there really a use case for a long-range wireless charging with smart speakers?

Dave: Well, so, I think the answer is yes to both of those things. For what the Move is, I’ve had one for a couple of weeks here now that I’ve been testing and the Move holds about a 10, they say a 10 hour charge, I’ve actually gotten more playtime than that out of it, but maybe I wasn’t cranking the volume as much as they did in their tests, but I got about 12 hours on average out of the thing. So, with that, yes, I do think the ring that they have to charge it is enough and that’s actually a really cool design because the speaker doesn’t actually sit in on top of the ring. The speaker sits on whatever your table or your countertop is, and the ring is just perfectly shaped to be just slightly bigger than it, so you get the charge, but you’re not getting any acoustically impactful change that would be mandated if you were raising the speaker up like in that ring.

Dave: So yeah, I think that ring for that speaker works really well, but that’s a speaker that’s meant to move around. Portable is fine to charge, something that’s fixed in place, not fine to have to go and charge it wirelessly or to plug a battery into it every couple of days or something like that, and if you have the surround speakers that you want to place behind the couch or something, you don’t want to run wires to those, but that’s fine, we’ve solved that problem with wifi or some other sort of speaker mesh network, but you still need to plug it into power and maybe you don’t want to have unsightly wires there, and certainly people have designed stands that hide the wire, the power cable, and all that stuff, but if a speaker like that could be powered with something like what you guys do or what WattUp at Energous does or anything like that, that would be fantastic because now you could have a speaker in the middle of your countertop in the kitchen and it’s wireless for its data and the sound and now it’s wireless for power. That’s pretty cool.

Yuval: Okay. So, asking the geek in you, so if you had sort of three wishes for the three devices that you could power wirelessly in your home, what would these three devices be?

Dave: Oh wow, that’s a good question. What are the three things that I am charging all the time? Well, I mean, my phone, if I could just wipe the slate clean, my phone would absolutely be one of them. My laptop would fall into that realm, but it wouldn’t be near the top of the list because laptop batteries tend to last a while and that’s fine. Wow, I would like something like one of my smart speakers, either the Amazon A lady or something like that. Any speaker that way, I would love to be able to have, like I said, in the middle of the kitchen counter without having to run cables everywhere. So, that I think would be a second one, and then I think the remote control for the TV, that’s one that it sucks when the battery dies on my remote.

I have one of those Logitech Harmony remotes, so it’s got a screen on it and if I don’t charge it at least once, maybe twice, a week it will die in the middle of me doing something, and that sucks. So, the remote might actually be at the top of the list, but certainly, the phone and the remote would be there, and then a smart speaker that could be wirelessly charged would be there just out of convenience. Although it doesn’t move, like, it’s the things that move where you really notice, “Oh crap, I need to charge that,” you know, but the convenience of not having a cable running to the speaker in the middle of the kitchen counter would also be nice.

Yuval: Right, it gives you more flexibility where to place it.

Dave: Placement flexibility, yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Yuval: And the last question on that, would you pay for wireless charging? I mean not you personally, maybe you get a lot of products for evaluation and so on, but now you a consumer, would you pay for wireless charging? Would it be 10% extra on your device cost, 20%, something else, monthly fee, you know?

Dave: Yeah. I mean, I think 20% extra is a fair number on like a remote. You know, I’m thinking, I’ve got a smart remote. I think those things run somewhere two, maybe three hundred bucks, so to pay an extra $50 for the remote to get it to wirelessly charge, maybe even a hundred bucks, okay. You know, on a $1,000 iPhone, is it worth paying an extra $200 or $250, probably not. I think in my brain it’s a fixed price that you’re paying an extra $50 to $100 bucks maybe for that convenience, depending on the value of it.

In a smart speaker, depending on how much the speaker is doing, you know, you can get a lot of those smart speakers for $50. I don’t use those because I like things to sound good, but there are a lot of people out there that put an Echo Dot in their kitchen and that’s their speaker. You can’t charge $50 on top of that price, right, and realistically sell it, but maybe you don’t sell this to people that all they’re going to do is buy a $50 little smart speaker. Maybe you limit it to those folks that are going to spend, let’s say $200 bucks on a speaker or more, Now, a $50 Delta to say, “Hey, you don’t need a power cable,” that’s kind of a nice thing.

Yuval: Excellent. So, Dave, in wrapping up, how could people get in touch with you to learn more about what you’re doing?

Dave: Yeah, you know, the easy way is to just follow me on Twitter @DaveHamilton, and if you don’t like to use Twitter, you can find me. Go to macgeekgab.com that’ll bring you right to the home on Mac Observer where we do our podcast every week, and I will answer your questions too. We answer everybody’s question that comes in and we really try to help folks, so feel free and come and visit us, macgeekgab.com

Yuval: Excellent. Thanks so much for being with me today.

Dave: Oh, thanks for having me. This was a blast. I love this conversation, fun stuff.

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