I'd like to start an occasional series of posts about great technologies that can't be commercialised. You know the ones -- great simplifying ideas that disrupt so many players in the value chain that they prevent it from seeing the light of day. This problem usually occurs at the dividing line between proprietary and open standards. I'll describe one today, but let me know if you think of others (current or historical).
I was reminded of th commercialisation dilemma recently in reference to a Cambridge-based company called Splashpower. This company makes a universal charging pad, on which you can charge the batteries of all your electronic devices through electromagnetic induction. No plugs, no wires -- just a pad on which you drop your phones and Palms and Blackberries and let them soak up the juice. Who wouldn't want one of those??
Sadly, the company has spent over 4 years (and several million bucks courtesy of Benchmark and other investors) trying to get this product to market without success. I don't have any inside knowledge, but I do have a view (isn't blogging great?), so please correct me if there is more to the story.
For Splashpower's pad to work, every device needs to have a little Splashpower module in it. That's what makes it so damn difficult to bring to market. In one fell swoop the pad would do away with one my biggest pet peeves -- the proliferation and incompatibility of chargers. Phone makers obviously like the status quo because (a) they make good money selling additional chargers (sometimes they cost £30 or more!) and (b) it's yet another way to lock consumers in to their brand. The latter is particularly galling, because it increases resistance to switching even if you're not happy with the features of the device. Sometimes Ithink there ought to be a law to force all phone chargers to have ineroperable connectors.
For the same reason that our chargers remain proprietary, Splashpower will never get wide adoption if it has to get its chip inside the actual devices. There are in my view only two ways around this:
- find a technical approach to remote charging without putting a chip inside the device; or,
- find a partner in the consumer electronics industry that (a) has clout, and (b) is willing to be disruptive to themselves and the rest of the industry.
Hmmm... who might be willing to do that?
Of course! This is just the sort of thing Steve Jobs could do to upset the industry. And it could provide a nice differentiator for next-gen iPods and the upcoming iPhone. But in order for it to be long-term disruptive, Steve would have to be willing to licence the technology on a non-exclusive basis. And so far, for all its attractions, the iPhone does not appear to be a very open platform; it's only extensible by Apple and it's unclear which 3rd-party applications will be supported.
If not Steve Jobs then someone else ought to take the plunge and suggest this radical idea to the industry: devices should compete on their functions, eg their hardware and software design. Let's make all the external interfaces (networking, power) open and extensible. That would increase consumer choice, improve devices and, surely, lift sales for the industry as a whole?