Opinion: The (unnecessary?) smartphone wireless charging war

The (unnecessary?) cordless charging war
Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

Charging cables are stupid. Folks who make personal care products know this. For instance, all electric toothbrushes are charged simply by plopping them onto a charge base — no micro USB jacks or annoying dangling cables anywhere.

So why can't we recharge our smartphone sans annoying cable? Well, we can. Except, other than a couple of Nokia Lumia and Nexus models, wireless charging isn't built into many smartphones. You have to buy an add-on case and a matching charging pad.

Why don't all smartphones include wireless charging? Because of a stupid format war, primarily between Qi and Powermat.

As in all format wars, the lack of a single wireless charging standard makes it hard for a technology to take ubiquitous hold — for handset makers to build it in, for operators of public and private accommodations such as airports, hotels, restaurants, etc., as well as car makers, to provide wireless charging options, and for us to make a choice.

What's bizarre is: this isn't really a format war. There is no technical reason why Qi and Powermat can't be merged to create a single wireless charging system.

In This Wireless Charging Corner...

The Powermat people — technically Powermat Duracell, owned by Proctor & Gamble — have clothed its proprietary wireless charging format under the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) rubric. PMA lists more than 100 members, including major smartphone and tablet suppliers such as Samsung, HTC and LG, and a host of chipmakers including Snapdragon maker Qualcomm.

Qi is an open standard administered by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which boasts nearly 200 members, including major smartphone and tablet suppliers such as Samsung, HTC and LG, and a host of chipmakers including Snapdragon maker Qualcomm.

Powermat and Qi are not the only wireless charging players. Competing (sort of) with the PMA and the WPC is the A4WP, the Alliance for Wireless Power, which boasts 65 members, including smartphone and tablet suppliers such as Samsung, HTC and LG, and a host of chipmakers including Snapdragon maker Qualcomm.

I detect a pattern.

There also are two upstart conductive wireless charging solutions, BuQu's Magnetyze and Kirk H&J's oddly-named iNPOFi.

Magnetyze offers two advantages to the two inductive titans: you can sync your phone while you charge (although the company is unfortunately downplaying this capability) and you can charge your phone vertically — it's held in place on a stand-up stand by a magnet, which saves considerable desktop space vs. a flat charging pad.

iNPOFi's solution claims to eliminate smartphone radiation, as if this is a problem. The company's most intriguing improvement, due to be shown at the upcoming CES, is a rubber charging pad that rolls up around a 6-inch-long tube topped by an LED flashlight.

But Qi and Powermat comprise most of the wireless charging market, such as it is, and all the overlapping alliance member companies are hedging their bets while committing to no one.

Except Apple, conspicuous by its absence since it didn't invent or buy either of the technologies.

But being bought is something BuQu is "certainly something we would be open to," Jessie Revlin, BuQu senior director of marketing, seductively suggests. She also hinted at a smartphone with BuQu built-in next year.

Can't We All Just Charge Along?

Both Qi and Powermat admit there's little technologically separating them, and both admit a single solution could be made backward compatible to accommodate legacy product.

So why are there two incompatible wireless charging ecosystems? To the press, the fight is philosophical, more Freud v. Jung than Edison v. Tesla.

"We were part of the Qi standard, we just view the category development in a different way," explains Ron Rabinowitz, CEO of Duracell Powermat. "We are technology agnostic. Once we have the business model and philosophical perceptions aligned, our goal is one standard."

The possibility to reconcile the two formats technically is something that is being studied," admits WPC chairman Menno Treffers. "The existence of incompatible solutions is a problem…and everyone is looking for a way to end it."

Beyond these public rainbows and unicorns wireless charging unification utopia platitudes, each wireless charging camp extoll minor operational and convenience advantages. Ooh, we charge 25 percent faster! Oh yeah? You don't have to place your phone on an exact spot on the charging pad with ours!

What's really keeping the two sides separate isn't business development philosophy or, as the two sides admit, technology. It's money. As in all format wars, it's all about patent royalties. And each side is striving to establish itself as a de facto standard via infrastructure.

Charge Your Phone Here

Both PMA and WPC are attempting to get charging plates into as many out-of-home venues places as they can. Each figures if they can drive more sticks in the ground than the other they can claim format superiority and seize the unification negotiation upper hand.

PMA/Powermat has been particularly busy in building out out-of-home charging. There are now tables with built-in Powermat charging plates in 17 Boston-area Starbucks, for instance, and soon 10 Starbuck stores in San Jose. Over the next few years, the Powermat people hope to have built-in chargers in 17,000 Starbucks worldwide.

Plus, earlier this week, Powermat announced selected Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf locations in the LA area will be furnished with charging pad-enabled tables.

Powermat's also placed charging tables in 10 McDonald's as part of a pilot program, including the store at 71st Street and Broadway in Manhattan, where I took the photo accompanying this rant.

Other than coffee and burger shops, PMA is readying 600 charging spots in the rejuvenated Madison Square Garden, as well as Powermat pads in Delta Airlines' lounges in JFK and LaGuardia airports.

Both Qi and Powermat also are trying to sign up car makers, but the WPC seems to be more firmly situated behind the wheel. Qi charging pads are already built into Toyota's Avalon and Qi-equipped Jeep Cherokees will soon be available, along with 2014 model Mercedes. Treffers says Qi is working closely with the German-based Consumer Electronics For Automotive (CE4A) group (Audi, BMW, Daimler, Porsche and Volkswagen). Treffers asserts Qi-committed car makers represent 30 percent of all vehicle manufacturing, and he hopes to hit half by 2015.

Powermat, meanwhile, hopes to have charging pads built into GM cars starting with 2015 models.

Who Will Win?

Perhaps the most important criteria in creating a winner is which side handset makers choose.

Qi fired the first handset integration shot by including wireless charging with the Lumia 920/928 handsets. Except, as far as I can tell, only these Nokia Lumias and the Google Nexus 4 include Qi out-of-the-box; nearly a dozen other smartphones plus the Google Nexus 7 tablet have Qi capabilities built in, but require the purchase of a separate Qi battery cover. Even when Qi is integrated, in most cases the handset makers fail to mention any wireless charging capability on the product Web page.

Last spring, PMA announced HTC, LG and Samsung will all unveil AT&T models with built-in Powermat charging next year. 

But instead of choosing Qi or Powermat, though, Apple and Samsung ought to lock the two sides in a room and force them to hammer out a single solution.

Until then, keep plugging in that stupid cable.

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