Wireless smartphone charging: only one standard needed

Wireless phone charging technology is nearly ready for prime time. Phones are being manufactured with wireless charging coils baked in; charging mat kits are being sold in big box tech stores; and places like Starbucks and McDonald’s are building the wireless charging surfaces into their tables.

But right now there are at least three separate and incompatible, yet similar, wireless charging technology standards. If this continues it could result in a lot of compatibility headaches for consumers.

The Qi standard

As far as I can tell, the leading group—the one with its technology in the largest number of real tech products—is the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). The WPC is a substantial group of 138 phone makers, chipmakers, phone accessories companies, wireless carriers, and others that has endorsed a wireless charging standard called Qi (the Chinese word for energy, pronounced “chee”).

The Qi standard has found its way into the most devices so far.

Some very big players are now members, including handset makers Samsung, Nokia, and Motorola; and mobile operators Verizon, T-Mobile, and NTT Docomo, which has sold a million Qi-enabled phones from four manufacturers in Japan.

The Qi technology has already been baked into the Nokia Lumia 920, the HTC 8X, the HTC Droid DNA, and the LG Optimus 2. Toyota says it plans to offer Qi-based wireless charging in its 2013 Avalon high-end sedan.

The WPC says 170 products include Qi wireless charging. These currently include mostly phones and at least one camera (the Pentax EN3), but the Qi charging tech will start showing up in Ultrabooks in the next year, the group says.

The Powermat standard

Then there’s the Power Matters Alliance, a group driven by Duracell Powermat and its (huge and rich) parent company Proctor & Gamble. “Supporters” of the Power Matters Alliance include Google, Blackberry, ZTE, and AT&T.

The group supports the Powermat standard, which is being productized mainly in Duracell Powermat phone charging sets that you can buy for your iPhone, and in third-party phone cases. The Duracell Powermat charging sets comprise a case for the device that connects with the battery, a backup battery, and a charging mat. Duracell Powermat says it has already sold 4.5 million of these.

The Duracell Powermat charging set for iPhone.

Another smaller group, called the Alliance for Wireless Power, is backed by Intel and supports a standard called A4WP. The group says its charging technology is more flexible than the others, allowing for multiple devices to charge when placed somewhere in the vicinity of the charging coil. This group counts Intel, Samsung, Broadcom, and Deutsche Telekom as members.

Both the Powermat and Qi groups are working with third-party companies to put their technology into accessories like designer phone cases. One company called Powerkiss makes a small Qi-based plastic ring that plugs into your phone’s charging port and makes it ready for wireless charging.

Caffeine and charging

Both the WPC and Duracell Powermat are working with large hospitality industry companies to get their flavor of power surface built into the furniture in restaurants, sports venues, and airports.

MacDonald's is trying out the PowerKiss Qi-based charging tech in Europe.

Starbucks, which has adopted the Powermat standard, has offered the charging mats in its shops in Boston, and will soon roll them out across the country, according to the Powermat people. You can also find Powermats in Delta lounges at LaGuardia and JFK airports, and in Madison Square Garden in New York.

The WPC says that McDonald’s is working with PowerKiss to put Qi power mats in some of its restaurants in Europe.

Two-horse race

I’d wager that the wireless power standard war will come down to a race between the WPC and Qi, and the Power Matters Alliance and Powermat. The WPC has made lots of headway with device makers already, and has momentum. The Power Matters Alliance, on the other hand, has already sold a lot of Powermat charging stations through retail channels and is backed by Proctor & Gamble, which has the capital to push the standard further.

Settle it, please

But the longer the standard war goes on, the more disconnect there’s going to be between devices and charging pads out in the marketplace. The Duracell Powermat case I buy for my iPhone may work in Starbucks, but not at McDonald’s. My tablet might work in McDonald’s, but not at Starbucks and not on the Duracell Powermat I have at home. The wireless charging case I buy for my Android phone may work at the airport, but not at the mall.

The people supporting Qi and the people supporting Powermat will tell you candidly that the two types of charging technologies are pretty similar, technology-wise. They both involve a small electrical coil in a power surface that sends power to a similar power coil near the battery in a device using something called magnetic induction.

So the two camps should unite and choose one either Qi or Powermat. If they can’t agree on that, they should get their engineers together and create a hybrid standard that combines the best aspects of both technologies. Maybe pull in some ideas from the A4WP standard, too.

We consumers don’t care. Just decide on one. Wireless charging is very likely to grow rapidly in the coming year, and it may go a long way toward relieving the headaches caused us by smartphone batteries that never seem to last as long as they should.

But just when relief is at hand through wireless charging, an unnecessary compatibility issue between devices and power surfaces could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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

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