It’s 2014 and wireless charging still isn’t mainstream, what’s holding it back?

August 1, 2014
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The wireless charger for the the Nexus 5 is coming, and soon.

Battery life is still a big weakness for our increasingly powerful and impressive smartphones. The need to plug in and recharge at regular intervals challenges their “mobile” status. It’s a pain having to take chargers and cables with you. It’s limiting to have to sit next to a power socket. How often have you inwardly cursed as you fiddled with that micro-USB plug?

You know what’s missing in every vision of the future? Wires.

Wires are ugly, they get tangled, and they end up dictating where we can have things. No one really likes them, so why can’t we just get rid of them once and for all?

The science is there

Electric toothbrushes have been wirelessly recharging since the 90’s. There’s nothing special about the technology and it’s been around for a lot longer than that. Inductive charging uses an electromagnetic field and tends to employ two induction coils, one in the device and one in the charging dock. Unfortunately they have to be very close together for this to work.

magnetic fields Hyperphysics

Thankfully some clever people worked out that resonance can be employed to transfer power over short distances of around a meter or so. The idea is that the charger and device are effectively tuned to the same frequency and this would enable the phone in your pocket to start charging when in range without you having to do a thing. It could also pave the way for battery-free smoke detectors and wireless gadgets and appliances throughout the home, but it’s not ready for prime time just yet.

What’s wrong with what we have?

Palm launched the Touchstone wireless charger for the Pre back in 2009. Since then we’ve seen various wireless charging kits that force you to splash out extra cash for a new back cover and a series of impressively ugly pads. It’s gradually becoming more common for smartphones to support wireless charging out of the box, but it’s far from ubiquitous.

samsung wireless charging

There are lots of inductive charging solutions on the market already, but they have weaknesses. You can only charge one device at a time and you have to find the sweet spot on the pad for it to charge properly. Knock your phone out of position and charging will grind to a halt. If you can get the same speed as charging from a USB port then you’re doing well, and there’s little prospect you’re going to get anywhere near wall socket speeds. You also can’t use the device while it’s charging.

There are lots of inductive charging solutions on the market already, but they have weaknesses

Having a pad on the night stand that you stick your phone on overnight is the obvious scenario, but it offers little advantage over a decent dock, especially if you have a magnetic charging port like the Z2.

The truth is that the current solutions that are available right now just aren’t that good and there’s another big barrier to their adoption.

Greed versus open standards

According to IHS the market for wireless power transmitters and receivers was worth $216 million in 2013 and it’s going to expand to $8.5 billion by 2018. Everyone wants to carve themselves a big piece of that pie and they’re still fighting about the technology, which means we can’t have a standard that will work across the board with every device.

The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) was founded in 2008 and is driving the Qi standard, which is the most widely supported right now. A lot of big mobile players are working with it including Samsung, Sony, Nokia, HTC, LG, Asus, Qualcomm, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon.

The Power Matters Alliance (PMA) was founded by Procter & Gamble and Powermat Technologies in 2012 and it has set itself up in opposition to Qi. It also has a long list of big mobile names involved including Samsung, Sony, HTC, LG, Asus, Qualcomm, ZTE, and AT&T.

best-wireless-charger-choe-2

The PMA has pushed Powermats into chains like Starbucks and McDonalds as it makes a play for public profile. General Motors just announced that it will have Powermat in its new Cadillac line, but you have to buy a case for your phone to use Powermat technology and they’re not cheap.

It’s not clear who will win and you can see that many companies are engaging in a bit of fence-sitting, waiting to see which side they should jump down on

The WPC seems to be focusing more on getting Qi technology into hardware like it did with the Nexus 4, 5, and 7, some of Samsung’s galaxy line-up, a bunch of Nokia Lumias, phones from HTC, Motorola, LG, and a bunch of others. However, it’s rarely advertised as a big feature and often requires the additional purchase of a Qi battery cover.

It’s not clear who will win and you can see that many companies are engaging in a bit of fence-sitting, waiting to see which side they should jump down on. There’s no significant difference in the technology that the WPC and the PMA are backing, in fact Powermat was in the WPC until it broke away to form the PMA.

What about magnetic resonance?

The next generation of wireless charging will be the near field magnetic resonance we talked about earlier. No mats or careful alignment, much greater potential convenience. The WPC just announced plans for Qi to fold a backwards compatible magnetic resonance system into the platform, but the PMA won an important battle when it convinced the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) to partner.

rezence

The A4WP was founded in 2012 and supports a magnetic resonance system which it’s calling Rezence technology. Another pioneer of resonant wireless power transfer technology, WiTricity, is also a member of the PMA. If it can get to market with these kinds of superior solutions then the WPC could see its early lead melt away.

Get on with it

Who is going to end up in the graveyard with HomeRF, Betamax, and HD DVD? To some extent we will decide with our purchases, but because the technology is going be incorporated into the devices we buy the alliances and decisions of the OEMs are vital. Who is going to choose a smartphone based on the wireless charging technology inside it? If all the big players jumped off the fence and chose the same side the argument would be over instantly.

Either way it looks as though the technology itself is going to improve drastically in the next couple of years and we can’t wait for it to deliver on its promise. No one is going to miss wires.

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