Wireless power gears up, but it needs a single standard to succeed

Every so often, the concept of wireless charging makes an appearance, beguiling us with the potential to ditch bulky charging adapters forever. That reality has been slow to materialize, as standards groups jockey for attention and products inch out slowly to market, locked into one consortium or another.

However, with a recent flurry of activity in this space, there's an increasing chance that you'll eventually be able to rid your desk of the tangle of wires you need now to charge your mobile devices. The bigger—and still wide-open—question is whether a single initiative can unify wireless-charging technology across all gadgets.

The wireless players

Until Wednesday, there were three noteworthy players in the wireless power space; a fourth joined the mix this week as Intel announced that it's also getting into the game. Among the confounding mess, there are two major technologies in play: Inductive charging, in which the device must be accurately aligned with the transmitter; and resonance charging, in which the device has positional flexibility relative to the location of the transmitter.

The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) is the most established group of the bunch, and it relies on inductive charging. WPC products carry the distinctive Qi logo; Qi is a play on the Chinese word for energy. The WPC has already built up a strong ecosystem in Japan, where NTT Docomo has sold a million Qi-enabled phones from four manufacturers. The story in the U.S. has been very different. Here, only a handful of compatible phones have been released in the last year from HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung, and all of them are on Verizon. We haven't seen much activity stateside since Verizon launched the Motorola Droid 4 earlier this year. That model had an optional, extra-cost battery door with Qi built-in.

Then there's the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), which launched at CTIA in May and counts wireless giants Qualcomm and Samsung as active backers. The A4WP approach uses resonance charging to give spatial freedom between where you place a device on a charging surface and where the wireless transmitter sits inside the charging surface. In other words, once you place a device anywhere on this type of charging surface you’re good—there’s no need to aim for a target.

Samsung could not comment as to when it might bring a product to market, but a company spokesperson did note that the wireless charging accessory that's part of its Galaxy S3 released in May “uses the basic technology” that's promoted by the A4WP. A Samsung spokesperson said that the Galaxy S3 implementation “is a good indication that the technology is mature and products with the A4WP specification are not far off.”

Somewhere in between these two is Duracell Powermat, which participates in the A4WP as well as the Power Matters Alliance. Power Matters' role is to push “Power 2.0,” a group that's trying to promote industry standards with its own logo program. Meanwhile, Powermat has partnered with Duracell to market its own inductive-power phone-charging sleeves and mats. At the moment, what's available is focused on adding wireless inductive charging to existing phones via cases rather than integrating the technology inside the devices. Powermat has demonstrated a wireless charging card that can be added into a device, but we haven't seen any products ship that have this technology built inside.

Intel demonstrates charging a phone wirelessly with an Ultrabook.

Intel Labs first showed off its Wireless Charging Technology (WCT) as far back as 2008, and Intel re-entered the wireless-charging picture in a big way this week. Now, Intel has partnered with Integrated Device Technology (IDT) to provide chipsets that can be used in a number of different product types, according to Intel. Intel's goal is to allow mobile devices, starting with phones, to siphon power from a laptop simply by being placed within an inch of where a resonant coupled transmitter sits in the PC.

IDT expects to have a reference design available by early 2013, which means products using this technology aren't very close to market just yet. According to Intel, your notebook will take a hit in overall battery power, but the impact may be less than you'd think.

“It all depends upon what the starting wattage of your notebook is,” explains Gary Matos, strategic planning manager at Intel. “We've run tests in our labs and in general, a 10 percent drop in a notebook will give you at least a 30 percent increase in your smartphone charge. That's with both systems running [simultaneously].”

The challenges to wireless everywhere

Fundamentally, all of these groups share the same goal: To power mobile devices wirelessly by simply placing the devices onto a supported surface. That surface could be a mat (which does need to be plugged in), or it could be a designated area on a table or in a car.

The big challenge lies in integrating any of these technologies into a broad ecosystem of products and devices and getting any wireless technologies deployed on a mass-market level. Right now, a lot of the choices in the market are limited to using customized sleeves in lieu of a regular phone case. The styles and colors of charging cases are limited at the moment, which in turn limits consumers' ability to choose.

Ultimately, any of these players will say the goal is to get the technology integrated into a phone, tablet, or any such mobile device. Phone manufacturers, for example, are looking at ways to integrate wireless charging in separate chips inside the phone, be it in the battery pack, inside the back cover, or on the phone's motherboard.

The ideal ecosystem would be one in which consumers won't need to know which technology might be inside their device, which one is embedded in the tabletop at the local bar, and which one is featured in the rental car they just picked up at the airport. Having different groups exploring different avenues to achieving the same goal can help push innovation, but the time is ripe for a rallying cry to push a single approach into the foreground.

Intel getting into the game could help do that if the company's partnership with IDT can get wireless-power products in front of consumers, embedded into furniture, and built into public spaces. Imagine a world where any notebook you buy supports wireless charging built-in. If handset makers can get behind this, too, the potential is tremendous.

Then again, this summer Apple received a patent on an inductive wireless charging docking station for iOS devices.

So much for rallying around one technology.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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