Stewart Wolpin – gadgets, gizmos and geegaws

13 August 2018

Stewart Wolpin writes about gadgets, gizmos and geegaws. We talk about consumer perception of wireless charging, about the importance of industry standards, what customers would be willing to pay for wireless charging and much more.

This episode was recorded on August 2018

Yuval Boger (CMO, Wi-Charge, @TheChargeGuy): Hello, Stewart, and thanks for joining me today.

Stewart Wolpin: My pleasure, Yuval.

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

Stewart: My name is Stewart Wolpin. I have been covering consumer electronics technology for about 35 years. I am also unofficially the historian for the Consumer Technology Association. I am a judge on their Hall of Fame Committee, and I also write all the biographies of the Hall of Fame inductees and update annually the industry’s history.

Yuval: Wow, I didn’t know all of that. That’s great. So we hope that long-range wireless charging will become a very important consumer electronics technology, but I’m curious about your perspective. Is it important? Do you think it will be important? What are you hearing today?

Stewart: Well, my thoughts are two-fold. There is a pro and there is a con as there is with any new technology throughout history, which is why I mentioned my history credentials. On the pro side, it is very easy for me to envision an age … a period of time will come when wireless power can be as ubiquitous as WiFi is. In other words, when you start looking at hotel rooms when you walk into public facilities or even private facilities such as restaurants. There’ll be a sign up saying, “We have wireless power.” So it is very easy for me to imagine that wireless power will one day be as ubiquitous as WiFi is today and that nobody will be scuttling around looking for AC outlets to charge their phones. That’s on the pro side. It’s very easy for me to imagine that world.

On the con side, however, is the problem of interoperability. There are obviously any number of players who are about to enter this space or looking to enter this space, and having interoperability standards ensures my optimistic future. Without interoperability standards, that future is … would be in my opinion … in grave danger, because it will be very hard for either public or private facilities to adapt or adopt a technology if they didn’t think that everybody would be able to access it, and nobody is going to want to put in two or three in just – in – case scenarios. So I have a pro view and a con view based upon what I see in the industry at the moment.

Yuval: So, we’ll get to the standards or the interoperability maybe a little bit later, but when you describe wireless describe power to consumers, or when consumers describe wireless power to you, are they thinking about charging an electric vehicle? Are they thinking about a toothbrush? Are they thinking about a phone? What comes up as the thing they most want to do?

Stewart: Consumers don’t realize or understand what wireless power is. The reason they don’t understand it is because what they know of is still, to a large degree, contact technologies: induction charging for their toothbrush and Qi charging for the phone … they don’t necessarily consider that quote-unquote, “wireless charging” in the same way that you guys do, or the AirFuel Alliance does, or a lot of the people who are looking at transmitted power. They see the quote-unquote, “wireless power transmission,” as simply, “I don’t need a cable now.” They don’t see it as the next step as broadcast power, the way Nikola Tesla envisioned it. So in the consumer mind there is no wireless power as far as the consumer is concerned. There’s simply cable-less, I guess. It sounds syntactical, but it isn’t because in their mind they still have to have two things touching in order to power something. So they don’t see quote-unquote, “wireless power” … and imagine me doing air quotes … the same way that you might, or the way that I just described might.

Yuval: But when they see it, they think they marvel, so-

Stewart: Oh, when I explain it to people, they immediately get it. It’s an easy thing then because they have WiFi, and they have cell phones. They have technologies that used to be had to be hard-wired to something and now are not. So it is easy for them to make the logical leap from power that you have to plug in to get to power that you can just your hold your phone up in the air and it absorbs power magically somehow. Because you know as well as I do that, as the old expression goes, that for most people, high – technology is akin to magic. And so for them to make that logical leap in their head from, “I have to plug it in. I no longer have to plug it in,” that’s an easy step for them to take since they had cordless phones and cellular phones and WiFi and Bluetooth. So it’s a very next step for them to understand, to grok, as Robert Heinlein once said.

Yuval: How much do you think there’s a risk of overselling the technology? In so for instance, Wi-Charge can deliver a few watts at room-scale, but today we’re unable to power your TV, I think we’ll never be able to power your electric vehicle. Are people thinking that the whole world is going to be wireless, or can they get their heads around it’s just going to be for battery-operated devices, for devices with a more modest level of power consumption?

Stewart: That is the key that you just said, “battery-powered devices.” Now that is not to say … and I think, again, this is an easy leap for consumers to make, but I have to disagree with you on one point: the wireless power of vehicles. There are already several plans afoot, including in Israel, of embedding wireless charging strips in roadbeds to charge cars as they are moving. These are obviously in their very, very early formations, but again this is something that is easy for a consumer to understand. As far as what Wi-Charge and some of the other wireless or transmit … I should call it “transmitted power” rather than wireless power. It actually is more correct to call it transmitted power. For consumers to understand that it’s for battery-powered devices. Consumers today, unlike, say, even 10 or 15 years ago, are used to new technologies coming out in less powerful forms than they would later on. For instance, when we first had WiFi, it was very, very slow, and it was difficult to do, so consumers have examples that they can look at in their memorable past, in their immediate past, to understand that there’s going to be a progression.

And so initially, they will understand if you tell them that this will power any of your battery-powered devices, again, I think that’s something easy for consumers to get. Now they may ask, “Well, what about televisions?” Well, and of course, that’s the same question I asked. And it’s easy to say, “It’s low – powered devices.” And people understand what a low – powered device is. It’s funny that when I had been thinking about this, one of the questions I had was what about printers? Printers are very rarely used. Is it possible to create a printer that would have a built-in battery in it for storage, but didn’t need to be plugged into power because it would be continually charged and could print X number of pages from its built-in battery that is being charged from the transmitted power.

There are all these other possibilities for storage power for infrequently used devices that may be a little more powerful, so again, I think this is something that consumers understand the evolution of technology and how technology progresses from version 1 . 0 to version 2 . 0 and get smaller and more powerful and less expensive as time goes on. They’re now used to this, given what’s happened in the last 20 years or so.

Yuval: How do you see the impact on consumers? And let me try to explain that: when phones went from corded phones to cordless phones to mobile phones, then all of a sudden the usage pattern became dramatically different. You’re not tethered to a wall. You can roam around your house, and then of course with mobile phones, you could roam pretty much anywhere. So if wireless power is now a reality, it’s prevalent, it’s standardized, what do you think is going to happen in terms of consumer behavior? If a TV were wireless – powered, would I just take it with me? If a printer were wirelessly-powered would I just take it with me? Or is it more about, “I don’t have to manage the battery of my phone. It just gets charged automatically. I don’t have to think about it anymore.” What do you think the impact would be?

Stewart: There is always when new technologies … especially new foundational technologies … come out, there is always consequences that companies can imagine and prepare for, and there are always unintended consequences. This is a repeated pattern throughout consumer technology history. So you and I can sit here understanding what we understand about the technology and project certain things. For instance, carmakers could start to include it in their cars. You turn on the car engine. All of a sudden you don’t have to plug the phone in, and not that it will charge the car, but it will charge anything that’s in the car. And one of the important use case scenarios will be the iPads or the tablets that the kids are using in the back seat. One of the big problems that parents have is on long drives is keeping their kids happy, and that means a lot of cars now have USB jacks in the back seat. It’s very easy to imagine that those begin to disappear over a period of time, or at least are supplemented by in-vehicle wireless power systems.

So there are use case scenarios … public transit is likely to be a spot for that because I can’t tell you how often I take trains in New York that you have people fighting over the one or two electrical outlets that are available on trains. Amtrak now has AC outlets at every seat. It’s easy to see how those might go away, especially since wireless power, or transmitted power, is probably easier to implement than WiFi is, since WiFi requires a connection to the Internet, which is always dicey when you’re moving, whereas power can be transmitted locally. It doesn’t have to be gotten from anywhere else. So as soon as you start the car or turn the train on, there are batteries, and those will supply the electricity.

So I think there are a lot of use case scenarios that you and I can sit here to come up with, but I think there’s going to be a lot of unintended consequences, and in many cases, it’s the unintended consequences that tend to drive the technologies, what you would know as the killer app. Something that somebody thinks of that nobody else thought of but is very particular to that technology. What that is in this case, I don’t know yet, but there are a lot of smart engineers out there who will see the technology and go, “Oh,” in sort of an “if” situation. “If I can do this, then why can’t I do that?” And there’s always those leaps that happen when you have these kinds of foundational changes.

Yuval: Do you think that the first applications will be home-based, office, factory, public places? Where do you see wireless power, wireless charging gaining a foothold first?

Stewart: I think that is largely dependent on the companies propagating the technologies. For instance, I was very, very, very excited about Bluetooth mesh. I thought that this would be a great thing because is in the home if you’ve got a phone, and you’re in one room … with your Bluetooth headset … and your phone’s in another room, and your phone rings, you have to run into the other room to get it instead of simply tapping your Bluetooth headphones and get it, if you have Bluetooth mesh. But for some reason, the Bluetooth SIG has decided to concentrate its initial role out to the commercial and industrial spaces. As a result, there are very, very few consumer products that have Bluetooth mesh. I thought Bluetooth mesh would be great for the home because it solves so many problems in the home for connectivity to your devices when they were on different sides of the house. I thought, “this is a great idea.” But the Bluetooth SIG thought differently, so they concentrated their initial role out in the industrial and commercial space.

So the same thing, I think, will hold for the transmitted power people is how what they’re going to concentrate on, where they’re going to concentrate their initial role out. So will it be a consumer? Will it be industrial or commercial? My own thought is that because this is such an easy thing to get for consumers … “Oh, I don’t have to plug it in anymore. I just have to come home, and it will start to,” … it’s such an easy concept to understand, where Bluetooth mesh may be a little more complicated, that the home is the best place for it because the biggest pain point is, “I have to come home and plug my phone in.” The second place would be mobile, but transferring something from the home to the car is relatively simple. You could do a third – party … a cigarette jack Trenton Power Transmitter.

So it’s easy to imagine a company coming up with a Wi-Charge cigarette adapter transmitter and now you’ve got it in the car without the carmakers having to get involved. So for me, it’s easy to see how this can spread very quickly and solves consumer pain points about plugging in, again, with the caveat of interoperability standards. We don’t want to go through the same thing that we did with the near – field wireless charging, the battle between the Powermat and the Qi and some of those other ones that took about three or four years to get settled before even Apple decided they were going to get into it. So that’s my … again, I just wanted … the drawback is interoperability, but I could see it spreading in the home and the car very, very easily.

Yuval: So let’s talk about standards because by now we’ve mentioned it a couple of times. You could go in a couple different ways. One is an all-out standard competition. VHS versus Betamax. HDDVD versus BluRay, where you have completely incompatible systems, and the second thing could be more like the seven ISO layers for communication standards. So you and I may be opening a web page, and we both use HTTP protocol, but two or three layers underneath, one might be using WiFi and the other might be using 5G and a third person might be using a dial-up connection to physically get the bits from one place to the other. So you could envision, “Well, there’s going to be I – R technology and there could be some RF power, and there could be different physical ways to get the power, but once the power is there, then things like what device is connected, how much power does it need, what’s the battery level? These could potentially be agreed on at an early stage. Where do you think the standards issue is going?

Stewart: As far as I’m concerned, I’m not looking at it from the technology point of view. I’m looking at it from the consumer adoption point of view. This is much different from the Beta – VHS and HDDVD, BluRay because a consumer could buy a device and go out and buy just … and they didn’t have to be compatible with their neighbor’s device for the most part. That was not important, but in order for the technologies … that was simply a marketplace decision. The market decided what was going to happen there. In order for transmitted power systems to propagate, it has to be adopted by institutions to provide it to consumers. It has to be provided by public facilities, in hotels, restaurants, that’s where it will … people will be able to buy it for the home, and they’ll be the early – adopters, and there’ll be the normal four-stage consumer adoption process. But what will hold it back is if I go to a restaurant and it doesn’t have my system, I’m screwed, and no restaurant, no hotel, no public facility provider is going to adopt a system in the middle of a format war. They’re not going to do it. They’re going to wait until things settle out, which is exactly what’s happened in the near – field charging situation.

It was not one … Qi was not … Powermat was not on … Both sides tried to get it out there, and they got it into any number of places and could claim a level of success, but it was never widespread because the institutions didn’t want to decide between one format or the other. So the only way that this reaches the level of ubiquity that I laid out at the beginning of the podcast is that it, as a consumer, I have a system from Brand A, and I go into a hotel, and it has Brand B. It won’t matter. My thing will charge. That is the only thing that, as a consumer, I care about. I don’t care about how you do it. All I care about is I don’t want to have to buy something that only works in half the places I’m going to, or doesn’t work in any of the places I go to because the places I go to haven’t adopted anything because they don’t want to do multiple systems at the same time.

It’s like if it had two versions of WiFi. That would never work because WiFi would never spread. It would never spread. You could have different versions of WiFi, but as long as the product was overall WiFi, it worked. If it was A, B, D, G, it still worked somehow, and that’s what needs to happen in the wireless power. They could be different versions of it, but as long as I can access one of them and not have to install two or three or four different systems to satisfy my customer needs, then I’m happy. And the customer’s happy.

Yuval: I think the counterpoint, though, as we draw closer to the end of the podcast, is though while we agree that having a standard is better than not having a standard, this could actually be a reason why wireless power would start at the home. And what I mean by that is, if I’m selling a wirelessly – powered smart door lock … one of these door locks that could do face recognition or fingerprint ID or a little video recording of who’s approaching the door … and you’re a consumer, and I sell you a smart door lock with wireless power inside and then I sell you the energy transmitter unit that you install above the door, you’re done. You don’t need it to interoperate with anything else. You’ve got a complete solution that you can install tomorrow, and you’re good to go with very clear benefits. Now, if you want to go into an airport, then you’re right. An airport could only install it once a sufficiently large number of devices are going to be compatible with the system that they install. Would you agree with that?

Stewart: Yes and no. Again, let us go back to both the USB and the WiFi example. The WiFi and USB connectivity started in the home. Well, what you do is that you whet consumer appetite. “I understand I can do this at home. Why can’t I do it someplace else?” And it pushes airports and restaurants and what not, and hotels … remember what happened with WiFi. It follows the path that you’re describing, but it was able to make that leap from the home to outside the home because there was a single standard that these institutions could assist. In other words, consumers started demanding it to a certain extent, and that demand could be met because there wasn’t an issue … the issue was merely logistical and economic for the institutions. It wasn’t a format issue. That’s what has held back the near – field wireless transmitting spread. It’s still few devices; it’s not all devices, and it’s still primarily in the home. It may start spreading elsewhere now, now that Qi has … Apple has adopted Qi, and Qi is now a defacto standard.

But establishing a defacto standard, especially for something like this, is going to be very, very hard, and it’s very rare for defacto standards to emerge on top, number one; and number two it takes a lot longer for a defacto standard to emerge. Again, remember Qi achieving its Qi – dom took about four or five years. That could have been cut short if there had been some unanimity in the near – field charging community that could have benefited everybody. If this war could have been shortened, this would have spread a lot more quickly.

And that is always the danger when you come into new foundational technology with multiple solutions. You’re absolutely right. It’s easy to understand for the home, but there’s a geometric leap to be made once you start getting airports and hotels and restaurants and public transportation, and … once you get it out there, there’s the reverse effect. It’s a feedback loop. You have it at home and nobody else knows that you have it, and it takes a while for that word of mouth to get out there, or the marketing muscle to get out there, “Oh, you can get this.” But once you see signs for it in airports, one you see signs for it in restaurants, “Oh, I should get that at home.” So it is a geometric leap of adaptability once you see it out in the real world as opposed to sequestered in your own little early – adopter home.

Remember right now the smart home is a very, very small percentage of the market, so basically what you’re chasing initially is, “I can charge my phone without plugging in.” And the pain point for consumers for plugging in their phone isn’t at home. Consumers don’t mind plugging their phones in at home. They’re used to doing that. Where the pain point is is the office. The pain point is the train. The pain point is when I’m out and about, “I’m running out of power. I need an AC outlet to charge my phone.” That’s where the pain point is. Home is nice, not a pain point because I have readily accessible power at home, even if I have the minor pain in the butt of plugging it in. The real pain point is in the real world. That’s where it has to be. That’s where it has to propagate, and that’s where I see the problems with interoperability standards being an issue.

Yuval: I would actually disagree there on pain point at home because if I … we brought up the smart door lock example … the alternative to a wirelessly – powered smart door lock is either it running electricity into your door, which is expensive, or replacing batteries all the time. The alternative to wirelessly powering a speaker is routing a power cord from wherever the speaker is to an outlet, so I think there is definitely a good amount of pain at home that could be solved immediately with wireless power.

Stewart: None of those are as important as the phone, and none of them are in such high – demand as the phone. As popular, quote-unquote, smart locks are at the moment, they are a tiny, tiny … I don’t think they’ve even reached one or two percentage points in penetration. This capability may boost their sales if smart locks [inaudible 00:25:47], but it is such a tiny, tiny piece of the market, and we’re already seen that smart locks are selling without this capability. Consumers have obviously willing to buy them even if they have to replace the battery once a year. Not a pain point enough for consumers to say, “Oh let me get that for that,” or, “Let me pay a premium for a smart lock if it has the wireless power.” That’s a tiny, tiny bit of the market. The pain point is smartphone charging out of the house. And whenever you have a new technology, it almost always has to solve a major pain point for consumers to rush to adopt.

You need to solve a major pain point, and smart locks is nice. It is not a pain point. It is an added convenience. Cell phone charging … smartphone charging out of the house is the major pain point this can solve and would immediately drive adoption because it’s so easily understood. How many times are you out and about, you see your phone and go, “I have to go someplace. I have to remember to take a charger with me. I have to take a battery with me. I have to go find someplace to plug it in.” That’s the pain point this can solve. And that’s where it needs … even though it will end up in the home by early – adopters, again, it’s not solving a major pain point. It’s a nice convenience add. The pain point is outside the home to solve the problem if my phone’s running out of power, how do I get more power to it? That’s the pain point that this can solve, and the only way it solves it is if I don’t have to worry about which case I have, or which system I’m using.

Yuval: Very good. So the last topic I wanted to cover today is the issue of pricing. So if you assume if you take the price of a high – end cell phone or an iPad, how much, if any, do you think consumers would be willing to pay if you now could charge it wirelessly?

Stewart: Price? Pricing is always commensurate with the pain point that it is solving. And again, you could draw upon the examples that we’ve had in the past. Cell phones were very expensive in the beginning. They were $1500, $2000 … and it’s funny that we’re coming back to that, but of course, we’re talking about $1500 in 1990s money, not 2018 money. Consumers are always willing to pay a premium to solve a major pain point. When the first flat-screen TV’s came out, they were larger and they took up less space and solved a major pain point for people with … when TV’s were getting larger and larger, but they were tubes, so they were enormous. So then even though we think that it was just, “Oh, we did a step up in quality,” you solved a major … flat-screen TV’s solved a major interior design pain point. So consumers will be willing to pay more if you solve a major pain point. So price: the willingness to pay is always commensurate with the level of a pain point that you are solving.

Right now, for instance, the premium to pay for a Qi phone is not that high. A consumer may have to pay a little more for it because it’s only on, for the most part, premium phones, but that is not a function of the Qi technology itself. It’s merely a part of the phone manufacturer wanting to separate its premium product from its entry-level product. “Oh, if you step up, we’ll give you wireless charging.” It’s not a technology cost issue. It is a product differentiation cost issue. So for wireless power, if you demonstrate a high enough pain point solution, consumers will be willing to pay for it because the number one driver of any sale of consumer technology throughout history is an additional convenience. You make something more convenient for a consumer, it almost doesn’t matter how much you charge for it. Consumer electronics history has shown us over and over again that consumers will pay more for convenience even if they lose quality. Even if they lose something else, they will always pay for added convenience. And wireless power is the ultimate in convenience for them.

Yuval: Excellent, so Stewart, what’s the best way for people to get in touch with you to learn more about your work?

Stewart: I have a website that has all my scribblings and there is a message area if they want to get a hold of me. It’s stewartwolpin.com. Very simple.

Yuval: Very good. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Stewart: My pleasure, Yuval.

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