Image: screenshot, iOS 7
Compared to often-dizzying pace of evolution in many areas of consumer electronics, there haven't been many leaps and bounds in the advancement of modern batteries in recent years. They're still expensive, toxic, and never seem to offer up as much juice as we want them to. And while industry luminaries like Google's Larry Page might dream of a day when devices don't need to be plugged in at all, the actual gadgets we own and use every day can't be powered on dreams alone.
Over the weekend, the New York Times offered up a juicy report about advances in battery technology that's giving many tech critics pause. Mostly this is because of the figure behind this new technology: Apple. The company that's been known to create or obliterate entire segments of the consumer electronic market with a flick of its wrist is now toying with several different ideas for charging its much-discussed-but-never-confirmed wearable "iWatch." And so even though its existence is still up for debate, the "iWatch" is already expected to disrupt the entire battery ecosystem in profound ways.
Whether its crushed silicon tripling battery life or sulfur-based batteries quadrupling it, battery breakthroughs are perennially on the horizon. The problem is that, even if battery yarn or a pee-powered battery is theoretically possible, making them cheap and durable enough to replace the lithium-ion polymer batteries we all rely on has yet to happen. Now, Apple is apparently solving the battery problem by instead working on alternative charging methods.
The first rumored method that Apple is experimenting with is a wireless charging system that uses magnetic induction to charge the device by way of a "plate" or surface rather than requiring a plug. This kind of technology is already available for a handful of Android and Windows Phone mobile devices, however, so the main question there is whether or not an analogous Apple product would use the de facto industry standard provided by the Wireless Power Consortium or adopt one of Cupertino's own.
Other potential options sound a bit more novel, however. The Times pointed to two additional charging methods. In the first case, a "solar-charging layer" could be added to the curved screen of the watch, which would allow the device to be powered in daylight during regular use. This sounds like a natural fit for a piece of wearable tech like a watch since it's already going to be out in the open more than, say, a smartphone or tablet, which usually lies dormant in the user's pocket or bag when it's not in use. Several patents and job listings that surfaced throughout 2013 lend further support to the theory that Apple is looking for new ways to harness the sun's power for future devices.
The other idea raised in the Times piece is a battery that could be charged through movement—say, by the swing of one's arm for something worn on the wrist. Like the magnetic induction idea, this kind of tech already exists in an admittedly basic form with things like shakeable flashlights, so Apple's main contribution here would be to popularize it by applying it to a more robust set of devices. The Times points out that Apple has had a patent for this kind of tech since 2009, so the idea has been around in some form for almost have a decade at this point.
When it comes to a company like Apple, therefore, the question for future battery technology is less one of technical capability than whether or not the influential company will give its stamp of approval to one kind of consumer electronics paradigm or another.
Phil Schiller, the company's longtime marketing executive and one of its most public faces, has often said in the past that he sees no need to introduce features like wireless charging or near-field communication to Apple's products—statements that hamper their mainstream acceptance even as rival developers try to lionize them.
So while we probably shouldn't expect any real game-changing batteries to pop up in Apple devices anytime soon (the Times quoted sources saying that the experiments are still "years" away from "becoming a reality"), the very fact that the company is taking such a keen interest in improving battery life and mobility still signals one of the major areas of consumer electronics that will be refined in the near future.