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The Long and Winding Road to Wireless Charging

We’re getting there. Slowly. Could Apple weigh in?
November 16, 2012

I’ve written about wireless charging before, but not with great enthusiasm. There was an Apple patent application that surfaced, but a patent application is just that (see “Apple Is Interested in Wireless Charging”). Intel made some advances last summer (see “Will Wireless Charging Ever Take Off?”). But for a while, I had yet to see anything out there suggesting a new era of charging to make Nikola Tesla proud was imminent.

But Roger Cheng over at CNET today has a comprehensive report convincingly demonstrating that wireless charging, if not yet mainstream, nonetheless is headed slowly but steadily in that direction. The report is worth reading in its entirety.

Cheng goes beyond speaking to a few tech companies pitching their pet projects. Analysts, too, feel that wireless charging is just around the corner. “For sure, we are getting closer to mainstream, and only really recently,” IHS analyst Jason dePreaux told him. Five million devices using wireless charging were sold this year, but IHS thinks that number will grow to 100 million in the next two or three years. A suite of devices have recently come out or been unveiled that support wireless charging, including the Droid DNA, the Lumia 920, and the Nexus 4. Verizon’s own VP of wireless devices said he wants many more devices to support the feature within the next year.

Of course, wireless charging is a technological problem on two fronts, in a sense–you need to have the tech in your phone, but you also need an infrastructure of charging stations to support it. Cheng points out that a chain of coffee stores–Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf–have gotten on board with wireless charging stations, as has Virgin Atlantic, which put a station in a Heathrow Airport lounge. Even Madison Square Garden has wireless charging spots throughout the arena.

In September, TR’s Jessica Leber posed the question of why consumers have been slow to adopt wireless charging (see “Wireless Charging—Has Its Time Finally Arrived?”). She pointed out that all the elements seemed to be aligned–over 125 businesses had even joined the Wireless Power Consortium, for instance–and yet the tech had not yet taken off. What’s more, a former barrier–the fact that wireless charging had been less quick and efficient–was falling away, with newer, faster methods available.

One thing that had slowed the process, arguably, note both Leber and Cheng, is the battle over standards. The Wireless Power Consortium promotes something called Qi; Powermat, Qualcomm, and Samsung have a competing standard, Power Matters Alliance. “So a Powermat charging pad in the LaGuardia Airport Delta terminal, for example,” wrote Leber, “won’t work with a Nokia Lumia Qi-compatible phone.” 

Ultimately, the CNET report suggests, the winning standard may come down to one man’s powerful decision. Apple hasn’t yet thrown in its lot with one camp or the other. Does Tim Cook have a preference between the two standards? With the iPhone the dominant smartphone, and with Apple’s penchant for simplicity and clutter-free design, a Cook endorsement could be the kiss of the kingmaker. Let’s hope Apple comes forward soon to anoint a chosen standard, so consumers everywhere can benefit from industry consolidation.

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