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What's up with WATT, Pt I (or "What's Wrong with Tech Journalism?")

It's been a while since I covered Energous (whose ticker symbol is WATT . Other posts are here , here , here , here , here , here , and...

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What's up with WATT, Pt I (or "What's Wrong with Tech Journalism?")

It's been a while since I covered Energous (whose ticker symbol is WATT. Other posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). They're one of the RF based wireless charging companies, and probably the most famous for their bold claims - first claiming 12 devices at up to 10 Watts, then up to 1 Watt at 4.5 meters, while remaining safe. These numbers were so high as to raise many questions as to practicality, both with respect to physics and regulatory aspects. Still, the company stood by its claims, held an IPO, and was floated on the stock exchange. Since then it has raised millions more, and has been burning through cash at the rate of around $15 million per quarter, while repeatedly delaying products and releases in what some call a 'time to carrot' manner.

To me, it was yet another example of the inability of the tech press to truly and effectively evaluate an advanced technology, and repeatedly fail to ask even the most simple and obvious questions such as "What's the efficiency?". David Pogue was one such reporter - in 2015 he sat down with the company CEO and was shown a demo of a charge light activating on a phone, while the CEO told him of how amazing it was and the reported gushed about how it was the most amazing demo ever. No, it's not the uBeam demo from a few months ago despite the similarities - two years on and still the press can't learn. Pogue finishes his 2015 article with this statement:

But I’ve seen it first-hand, and I’m convinced: This technology is real.

Wow, that's awesome, a tech journalist has fully evaluated a piece of complex technology without even cracking the case, speaking to the engineers, or the benefit of a decade or two of experience in the field. I want to believe so let's pour millions more dollars in!

Yes, that's all funny. Except millions of dollars more were poured in, thanks in part to glowing coverage like Pogue's. Fortunately, Pogue at least thought to go back a couple of years later and take a look at Energous, and published an article last month where he talks to Energous again with a slightly more skeptical eye. I say slightly more skeptical because he still allows himself to be bamboozled by the company and still fails to ask the basic questions he should - it's frustrating as 5 minutes with a decent engineer would give him exactly what he needs to ask. Let's take a few of these failings in turn:

Consumer Product Logistics
First of all he asks why they haven't shipped the product when it's near a year after the original claim. Or wait, spend 10 minutes searching and find that in 2014 the delivery date was 2015, so it's now two years behind and the delivery is constantly moving out, around 18 months ahead. The excuse is they have gone from one to three products (near, mid, far range) and that has shifted the timeframe, but that products will be for sale late Q3/early Q4 this year. That means about three months from when that interview was given, and they're not certain when a consumer device will be in the shops.

Let me be clear about this - consumer devices that are going to be for sale are ready many, many, months prior to launch. The supply chain issues to get them out mean that, unless you are selling tiny quantities, you're ready >6 months prior. Basically - if you don't know exactly how many of your devices will be on the shelves, on exactly what dates, in exactly what location, you're likely at least 6 months out, more likely a year. A few simple questions like "How many devices will be on the shelves?", "Who are the major retailers committed to stocking them?". "What is your MSRP?", "What are your projected sales volumes?", and "Can I see the retail packaging?" and it should become really clear, really quickly that the company actually has something, or is just selling vaporware.

These questions are so simple, so generic, yet an experienced journalist doesn't know to ask them.

Regulatory
Next they discuss the FCC and regulation, and Energous make it clear that they've been working to create a new testing protocol with the FCC. Awesome. So: 

Who were you working with at the FCC? Can I call them? 

or

The FCC is a public agency and they're only working with one vendor to create a standard that will apply to an entire industry? Is that normal? Let's ask the FCC that too.

Were the FCC called? Anyone there prepared to make comment? What about someone expert in getting FCC regulatory compliance for consumer products to evaluate that statement? (uBeam also made a statement about being universal standard, then withdrew it after scrutiny)

Then the company claims that they can do this with the FCC since the spot size they focus to is 'tiny', localized just as it would be on a charging pad. Fantastic. So:

What's the spot size, in centimeters? What is 'tiny'?

or

You're working at 5.8GHz and so are looking at a multi-centimeter wavelength and an array of emitters only a few elements in size. Even under ideal conditions it's hard to focus, how do you make it "tiny"?

or even


As you can guess, there was no follow up, the tech journalist once again simply accepted the statements of the company at face value and failed to question them. Ridiculously simple questions too. My first post on Energous covers the spot size question and explains it in detail - maybe ask them why those numbers or physics are wrong? It's like the recent coverage of uBeam when the company said they'd have safety evaluated by third party experts and no-one asked "Who would that be? Can we talk to them?"

How hard are any of these questions? And if they don't answer, or dodge, you know something is up. But that would be uncomfortable, and would put access as a tame journalist at-risk, so best not to.

The Charging Pad
Next, they look at the Watt-Up Mini, the charging pad that Energous claim is their first product that has FCC approval - I've pointed out before, it has FCC approval because it puts out so little power it's of no practical use at all. Energous are at pains to point out advantages such as charging the devices at any angle, or compatibility with future long range Energous products, but once again there's no follow up with questions like:

Who are your major competitors to this charging pad? How does the Mini compare to them in charge rate, efficiency, and cost?

If it's a major revenue possibility for them, and they diverted from their core mission because it was so compelling, they should have a clear business justification. It's a simple question. How can you not ask this?!?!?

The Big Devices
Then we get to the full scale medium and large transmitters, and here's where the really interesting part happens. Remember the claims of 15 feet and multiple Watts? Gone, replaced by a 'very, very small amount of power', '15 feet from the transmitter, that’d be hard for us to increase the battery. We’d just keep it from going down.' and  'It’s not charging super fast, like you would be plugged in the wall, but a small amount of energy, trickle charging it.' Just like uBeam in their recent demo, they've suddenly gone from claiming huge charge rates like 'faster than a wire' down to 'trickle charge'.

Let me put this into an analogy the non-technical people can understand. Ever met some guy who boasts he can bench-press 1100 lbs and run the 100 meters in 9.5 seconds, and you know he's full-of-shit because those numbers are just beyond the world-records (1075 lbs and 9.58 seconds) and it would be amazing if he could do one of them? And then when you finally, finally, get him to the gym and track and find he can maybe do 150lbs and then falls over wheezing at 50 meters then staggers over the line in 30 seconds? That's what's happening here - yet everyone claps their hands in the tech example about their amazing progress rather than calling him out for being a blowhard. For anyone with a vague understanding of the situation, or physics, we're sitting wondering if we're the ones taking crazy pills.

Back to the article - it's as if these wireless power companies are all reading from the same playbook - and why not, it's not like tech journalists are going to call them on it. Here's a stunning line:

During my return visit, Energous never demonstrated its transmitters charging a phone — only low-power gadgets.

Let me be clear - a company that raised tens of millions of dollars on claims of huge range, charge rates, and short delivery times, is admitting that their original claims were greatly exaggerated and people need to scale back their expectations. More importantly, they don't show a phone being charged, about the only market that's actually worth addressing for a company with a billion dollar valuation requirement. Of course this led the journalist to ask "How this will impact the share price?", "How they could have got it so wrong?", "How are forward looking financial plans are clearly heavily impacted by the drastic reduction in sales this must imply?". Ha - no, looks like there was just a nod of the head as they took down what was told to them.

The Journalism
There was journalism in this piece though - good investigation, skepticism, and a revelation - sadly it didn't involve Energous itself, but on an internet commentator. The piece starts with the claim that a single person in the whole world was bothered by the original 2015 article - which is bizarre as there were many who questioned Energous, but that would ruin a good story. Todor Mitev appears to be a short seller - a person making money from a stock that goes down, rather than up - and has been following and commenting on Energous for some time. While the short selling does give someone an incentive to drive a price down, did the journalist even pause for a moment and say "Maybe he saw that the stock was overpriced due to the hype from journalists, is just highlighting the reality, and in this capitalistic world making some money from it too?" Apparently, a person like Todor with a financial incentive from short selling can't be trusted, but the three top execs of Energous who take home nearly $5 million a year between them from a company with no product or sizeable revenue are motivated by the angels. Yep, great job there.

There's some suspicion that Todor writes under pseudonyms on forums such as Seeking Alpha, and has been accused there of being the poster Richard X Roe. I've followed Roe's posts, which contain a lot of detailed and accurate physics, and I have had a few short exchanges with him. If his physics was wrong, then it could easily be called out, but in a similar way to how my articles on uBeam are criticized but never attacked for the maths or physics, it's his character that is questioned. Nicely done in re-iterating that line.

An important question to the author - if you asked the questions I've outlined above to Energous, would that impact your access in future, and put at risk your potential earnings as a journalist?

We're all motivated by money. All of us, it's just sometimes it's more obvious than others - but it doesn't necessarily impact the validity of what's being said. To be clear here, I have zero financial interest, long or short, in the fortunes of Energous. I don't even make money from this blog. Looks like I'm the only one with clean-hands - does this mean I get listened to more than any other player?

The Close-Up and Cop-Out
The article ends with some quite frustrating quotes. First, the CEO makes this statement:

We’re on the cusp here. We think that this will all be in the rearview mirror in the next six months or so.

So by the end of 2017 it's all going to be awesome? That's an easy one to follow up on. I'm sure we'll have a year end article doing exactly that. <cough> But it's one of the close-out lines that irritated me most of all. Our intrepid journalist writes:

I never did manage to find out exactly how realistic through-the-air charging is, how close it is to appearing in our phones and watches. I’m not sure anybody really knows.

Of course you didn't find out if it's possible, you failed to ask any serious questions, or even the easy questions. You didn't even try. The closest he gets is a quote from an MIT prof which was:

“I don’t like saying ‘never’ or ‘can’t work,'” he replied, “but I would be skeptical. My guess is that this sort of system, with phased-array antennae, might work, but it is probably not very efficient.”

which if you understand engineering speak is saying "Nope. Not going to work in any vaguely efficient or practical manner." Let me translate again to the bench-press/100 meter analogy "Yes, it's just maybe possible someone can lift that much, or run the 100 meters in that time, even one would be incredible, but two together even more unlikely. I'm just not saying "No" since maybe sometime in the next 100 years one person in a few tens of billions may be able to." 

But then he says "I'm not sure anybody really knows."

To David Pogue, the writer of this article I can say this - Really? THEN WHAT WAS THE POINT OF YOUR ARTICLE? 

You. Failed.

More than that, you failed when there are many people out there who show the ways in which what they claim can be disproved - how many did you speak to? This blog has several posts that are examples of this and refute many of the points made by Energous not with opinion but easily verifiable maths and physics.

David - I know you think you were being skeptical yet fair to Energous, but really, you just acted as a mouthpiece for them to do their PR again. This time instead of pumping up the stock early on, it's part of the slow letdown. You've been suckered. Again.

Two years ago you told us all it was real. Now you don't know. Why should we listen to you on this, other than you were chosen by Energous?

Last month on Seeking Alpha, I gave my opinion on the viability of Energous, and discussed it with an individual investor. He admitted he had no business, investing, or technical skills by which to judge the company, but it was clear he had been motivated by the publicity the company had generated, which your articles have been a small part of. Understand that your articles actually affect the finances of individuals. Your words have real consequences.

What you meant to say by "I'm not sure anybody really knows." is "It's beyond my capability to understand but rather than admitting so, I wrote the article anyway while thinking to be 'even handed'"

Tech journalism is actually important, and you turned an article about the vast overstatement of capability of a (then) $350 million market cap company, into a PR piece for them. Rather than do the hard job of asking a few basic questions that would highlight the reality of the situation, but endanger your future access, you did a 'gotcha' on an individual who uses a pseudonym and might make some cash when pointing out the realities of the technology. Easy path every time.

I get it, this stuff is actually really complex and hard to understand, beyond most people's capability - but there are some great tech journalists out there, that match skepticism with fair questioning and coverage, and manage to get the complexities explained to a lay audience. To every tech journalist out there, please, pretty please, with sugar on top - be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Next in Part II - what's going on with Energous' share price?

1 comment:

  1. Think about tech journalists' audience, they're not like political journalists. Technology readers don't want to read about skepticism, it's like how science fiction reader doesn't want to know about what might not be possible.
    I don't blame journalists, the real interesting failure is the institutional investors. I listen on the conference calls and the analysts don't ask hard questions either. They're afraid to question the fundamental thesis of their investment, or show that they don't trust the management.

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