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Where's my solar-powered iPhone?

Everybody wants a smartphone that charges itself by converting light into power. But will that ever happen?

September 21, 2013 07:08 AM ET

Computerworld - Now that we're finally getting those jetpacks futurists have promised, it's time to update our first-world wish list to include solar-powered smartphones.

The good news is that smart people are working on it -- including Apple. The company recently posted a job listing for an engineer with experience with solar power.

Apple's job opening could be unrelated to any project that even explores solar power -- the expertise required could be applied to other thin-film technologies. But it's clear that Apple is interested in -- and working on -- solar smartphone technology.

In February, Apple filed a patent for a method of integrating solar panels into a mobile touchscreen. The company has older patents for solar gadgets as well.

Now, patents don't always equal intent. But the patents and job listing have rumor mongers speculating about a solar-powered iPhone 6.

Forget about that. It's not going to happen. Solar technology almost certainly won't be built into an iPhone within the next two years.

And if such a phone were to arrive on the market, it's very unlikely to be totally solar powered. Solar panels on phones might extend battery life, but phones will still have to be charged by plugging them in or via wireless charging.

But never say never. In fact, it's very likely that advances in thin solar paneling will make that technology irresistible for extending battery life beyond what batteries themselves can achieve.

Why solar power failed on Android phones

Two low-cost solar-powered Android phones emerged in 2011.

Two years ago, Samsung announced a $350 solar phone called the Replenish, which was advertised as environmentally friendly. (You can still buy the phone for about $99 at Walmart or even less on other discount electronics websites.)

The upside: The Replenish is made from about one-third post-consumer recycled plastic. A solar panel on the battery cover extends battery life when charged in sunlight.

The downside: It's an obsolete throwback that runs on Android 2.2 (Froyo) and has a physical keyboard, a small screen and a 2-megapixel camera. And the solar panel is pretty weak: An hour of charging gives you 20 minutes of talk time. Better than nothing, I guess.

The other solar-powered Android phone was a device called the Umeox Apollo, which launched in February 2011. Counterintuitively, that phone was targeted at the low end of the market. It had a tiny screen, a lousy camera and other limitations. And it didn't gain any significant mind- or market share. That may be why its Chinese maker dropped any mention of the phone from its website.

Between 2006 and 2011, a handful of other solar-powered Android phones emerged; all of them failed in the market.



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