Wireless charging blazes path toward mainstream

Heavyweights are backing the idea of wireless charging capabilities embedded in phones, and public charging stations are beginning to pop up. Differing standards, however, still make for a rocky adoption.

The Droid DNA is the latest smartphone with wireless charging built in. Sarah Tew/CNET

The ability to charge a smartphone by simply placing it on a tabletop has been around for a while, but it's more of a novelty, for early adopters and gadget buffs.

Wireless charging cases, back covers, and pads are out in the market, and the Palm Pre memorably championed its Touchstone charging stand a while back, but the options are either too complicated, expensive, or, in the case of the Pre, not popular enough to really resonate with consumers.

That's poised to change over the next year, with momentum and a lot of big-name companies behind the idea. The wireless charging push could change the way consumers use their smartphones, and may go a long way toward alleviating the stress many power users feel when a low-battery warning signal pops up on their mobile device.

"For sure, we are getting closer to mainstream, and only really recently," said Jason dePreaux, an analyst for research firm IHS.

At the same time, a number of different alliances, with competing standards for wireless power, threaten to bog down the adoption and potentially confuse consumers.

Earlier this week, Verizon Wireless and HTC unveiled the Droid DNA, the latest smartphone to get wireless charging built into the phone, following other high-profile devices such as Nokia's Lumia 920 and LG's Nexus 4.

Wireless charging is a big initiative for Verizon Wireless, according to Jeff Dietel, vice president of wireless devices for the nation's largest carrier. In an interview with CNET, Dietel said the carrier is pushing to get the feature into many more devices next year. An example is the Droid DNA; HTC confirmed that it added wireless charging at Verizon's request.

Wireless charging stations, meanwhile, are beginning to proliferate, albeit slowly. Powermat, part of Duracell and Proctor & Gamble, has a trial to get wireless charging pads installed in Starbucks in Boston, and CEO Ran Poliakine told CNET he plans to expand nationwide next year. Earlier this week, Powermat showed off hundreds of "Powerzones" with wireless charging pads installed in the newly renovated Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks are the newest fans of wireless charging, with Madison Square Garden now featuring several hundred wireless charging spots in the arena. Roger Cheng/CNET

When Nokia unveiled its new Lumia smartphones in September, the company said it had partnered with Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to get wireless charging stations in the coffee chain's locations , as well as with Virgin Atlantic to get them in airport lounges, starting with the executive lounge at Heathrow Airport in London.

The wireless charging business is still in its infancy, but industry observers see a lot of potential. Roughly 5 million devices were sold this year with wireless charging, but that number could grow to 100 million by 2015, according to an IHS study. At that point, the market for different accessories and wireless power chips could be worth $4 billion, the firm said.

More importantly, a world where charging stations are commonly available is a world where people can truly go unplugged, with power users no longer feeling the pressure to seek the closest outlet.

"People should be able to get through the day without battery anxiety," Polaikine said.

Conflicting standards
As with many emerging technologies (think Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD), wireless charging has many different champions, all with their own vision of how the feature should work.

The recent smartphones that have come out all use a standard called Qi, run by the Wireless Power Consortium, whose members include Verizon and many of the handset manufacturers. Verizon had also pushed to get Qi into the LG Spectrum 2 and HTC's Windows Phone 8X.

Powermat, meanwhile, is part of a rival standard called the Power Matters Alliance, which boasts heavy hitters such as Google, AT&T, General Motors, and Starbucks as members.

Polaikine told CNET he expects to go national with charging stations in Starbucks next year, and added that he believes AT&T will start to push handset manufacturers to add a compatible wireless charging capability into its phones next year.

AT&T, for its part, acknowledged its membership in the PMA but declined to discuss its plans. However, one of the carrier's flagship phones this holiday season is the Lumia 920, which runs on the incompatible Qi standard .

The contradictory lineup highlights what could potentially be a confusing scenario for consumers: a Lumia 920 user looking for a quick charge at Starbucks will be out of luck.

While the implementation is different, the underlying technology is the same and has been on the market for a while -- electric toothbrushes have long used wireless charging in their docks.

Waiting in the wings are at least two other major standards: one being pushed by a recently formed group called the A4WP (Alliance for Wireless Power), backed by Qualcomm and Samsung, and a separate standard backed by Intel focused on using laptops as a wireless charger for mobile devices.

Neither initiative is on the market yet, but industry observers believe A4WP has enough clout to make noise in this area, given the strong participation of the world's largest handset manufacturer and mobile-chip maker. Hedging its bets, Samsung is also a member of the WPC.

A4WP, for its part, positions itself as a next-generation standard that will be the successor to the wireless charging options on the market now. That's because the technology allows for more flexibility -- devices don't have to be perfectly aligned, the stations can handle multiple devices with differing voltage requirements, and the stations themselves can be designed in more flexible ways.

The rhetoric from the various groups, unsurprisingly, is full of bluster and shots at the competitors.

Powermat CEO Ran Poliakine in one of Madison Square Garden's luxury suites. Roger Cheng/CNET

"It's a new market," said Kamil Grajski, president of the A4WP. "The generational changes are going to be pretty fast. The differences are dramatic."

Menno Treffers, chairman of the Wireless Power Consortium, is fairly dismissive of the other technologies, noting that there aren't any products coming out of the A4WP, and relegating the PMA to a few sleeves and accessories.

"Sleeves are not really attractive," he said.

Poliakine, however, noted that one of its key partners, Starbucks, helped drive Wi-Fi into the mainstream, and he sees the coffee chain doing the same with Powermat wireless charging.

"If I'm able to create 1 million wireless charging spots within 18 months, that is mainstream," he said.

Mainstream recognition a while away
In spite of Poliakine's optimism, most don't believe wireless charging will be as common as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi for another few years.

For now, it remains a niche category. Most customers who want the capability have to buy replacement back covers for their smartphones, as well as charging pads. Powermat makes cases for iPhones since there is no removable back cover.

Apple could actually provide a helping hand to the cause of wireless charging, and do a lot to settle the standards issue. If Apple backed one standard, the industry could quickly consolidate behind it, as its iPhone remains the single most popular smartphone.

So far, Apple hasn't expressed much interest in the capability and, as with near-field communication technology for mobile payments, hasn't yet dabbled in wireless charging. CNET contacted Apple, but the company wasn't available for comment.

History says that once wireless charging gets embedded into more phones, the adoption and awareness of the feature will skyrocket. In Japan, NTT Docomo began requiring phones to carry the feature a year ago. Now the feature is more widely used, and the other Japanese carriers have followed suit.

"Once it's integrated without any penalty for usability and shape, then it will take off," Treffers said.

Adoptions will really make the leap once the industry settles on a common standard, giving makers of mobile devices and accessories a direction on where to invest. Such accessories include alarm clocks, speakers, media docks, and even car dashboards or armrests -- all with the potential to wirelessly charge mobile devices.

While the various parties agree on little, they all said the victor will ultimately be chosen by the consumer. And consumers may well be ready.

"This isn't something we're pushing on people," said Dietel. "We're seeing demand for it."

 

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