Radical Battery Breakthroughs from Apple Probably Aren’t Coming Soon

Wish in one hand, gossip in the other.

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My final frontier (and I’m betting yours right now, too): battery life.

You can have your retinal virtual reality, reverse-engineered brain, self-aware computers, nanomachine-assembled food and self-replicating, galaxy-gallivanting higher forms of intelligence. I just want my dumb old iPhone — I am living in 2014, right? — not to die after an hour or so using Google Maps.

What if a company like Apple managed a battery revolution trifecta, implementing solar, motion and inductive charging into hypothetical wearable technology? None of that wearable tech exists, of course: there is no Apple iWatch, or Apple iFitness band, or Apple iSeeYou headgear, or insert your own wishfully-wide-eyed concoction here. These media-hatched ideas may come to pass, or they may not.

But if they did, or even if they didn’t — the iPhone’s essentially something you wear, no? — using a 4.57 billion-year-old energy source as well as some principles identified by Isaac Newton back in the 17th century could add some welcome oomph to an iDevice’s power cells.

Let’s dream a little: Imagine laying your phone out at your campsite on a sunny day to generate a little photovoltaic juice, or shaking it gently for a few minutes to top things up. Imagine your phone passively sipping from the air by tapping the energy invisibly generated by radio signals. Power for free, in other words, or free enough, since in all instances you’re hitching a ride on existing — and save for nights and cloudy days, ubiquitous — energy frameworks.

I’ve read about battery schemes like these for years, all of them rumors-ville with introduction timeframes based more on wishful thinking than reality. This New York Times piece is more of the same, mostly cataloging known unknowns and coming to the same conclusions: maybe the company will, maybe it won’t, and wouldn’t it be lovely.

We’ve heard plenty about Apple’s solar-charging patent lately, but as my colleague Jared Newman sagely noted, patents can mean everything or nothing. The ratio of patents filed to products brought to market is roughly a bazillion to one. Apple could roll out a solar-powered iPhone next week…or never, and second-guessing timeframes is a fool’s errand.

What remains is a growing need no one’s filling. My iPhone has far more in common with my laptop than with the cheap clamshell or TV remote-style phones I carried years ago (and used exclusively for talking). When I’m out the door, I’m dragging my charge cable with: ready to plug into my car’s AC port, or siphon power from my laptop (working on the go, say at a coffee shop), or connect to one of these mobile battery charging stations. My iPhones haven’t lasted for more than a day of light use off a single charge for years. That’s because these things are mini-PCs, not phones (I use my iPhone maybe 10% of the time as a phone-phone), and mini-PCs used as mini-PCs require power top-ups the way monster trucks guzzle diesel or regular unleaded.

So I’m waiting — not patiently, but also not expectantly — for someone to figure this out (without using atomic energy pellets that melt our heads). Whoever does, if the leap is grand enough and not more of this piecemeal approach, stands to do more for mobile futurism (and futurism in general) than any mobile idea we’ve yet seen from Apple, Google and the rest.