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Preparing To Unplug: The State Of Wireless Charging

Michael Moore joined TechWeek Europe in January 2014 as a trainee before graduating to Reporter later that year. He covers a wide range of topics, including but not limited to mobile devices, wearable tech, the Internet of Things, and financial technology.

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It has the potential to change the world, but far more industry co-operation is needed before wireless charging technology becomes commonplace

As smartphones become increasingly integral to our everyday lives, the need to ensure that they continue to run and operate throughout the day is becoming just as crucial for mobile users.

The technological advances made by recent smartphones and tablets have come at the expense of battery life, and the ability for a smartphone to deliver a high level of performance without dying an early death is becoming more and more desirable. Indeed, recent studies have suggested mobile device users becoming increasingly anxious and tetchy as their handsets run out of juice.

This has encouraged a raft of extensions, applications and cases promising to provide extra battery life, but what about doing away with wires altogether to ensure smartphones are constantly charged?

Get connected

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Over the last few years, wireless charging has developed from a science-fiction pipe dream to reality, with the results being seen in a growing number of devices. As the world becomes more connected and the Internet of Things continues to grow (recent research by Ericsson suggests that this network could reach 50 billion devices by 2020), alternative methods of charging are becoming increasingly popular.

As it stands, there are two main technology standards battling it out for supremacy – the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) Rezence technology and the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC)’s Qi technology.

The two wireless charging superpowers have been eager to attract as many manufacturers as possible to their respective causes, but the A4WP was recently strengthened  by a merger with the third major player in the space, the Power Matters Alliance.

In terms of technology, there are two approaches. The first is the older ‘induction’ effect where a device must be placed directly on a charging plate and charged using electromagnetic induction, and the second is the ‘resonance’ effect which operates over a short distance and allows the charging of multiple devices and cars.

Two tribes go to war

PMA’s PowerMat and WPC’s Qi are both induction technologies, while Rezence uses resonance charging. Qi currently has the lead in devices, as it is currently included in popular devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and several Nokia Lumia devices. Nokia has arguably been the most high profile supporter of wireless charging and has teamed up with Fatboy cushion chargers to bring the technology to more users.

“Nokia is committed to Qi as it contributes to the user’s experience and helps elevate the standard of safety in Nokia wireless charging products,” Olga Cherepenina, Nokia’s senior product manager of wireless charging told TechWeekEurope.Nokia Lumia 920 4

However PMA has taken the lead on getting charging stations installed in shops and offices. It has agreed deals with outlets such as Starbucks and has developed an application and cloud-based service to help users find charging stations and boosting the organisation’s profile.

Under the terms of its deal with A4WP, the PMA has promised to adopt Rezence technology for magnetic-resonant charging hardware, while A4WP will also add the PMA’s inductive kit (regarded as “legacy”) to its resonance systems in order to create multi-mode wireless chargers which can charge using both induction and resonance methods. The two groups will both use and develop the PMA’s cloud services, and its open network API for network services management.

“This announcement delivers a compelling message for the industry to commit and deliver wireless charging devices now,” Kamil Grajski, president of A4WP, said of the deal. “Between the organisations, A4WP and PMA membership consists of the key players necessary to drive industry consolidation and establish a commercially viable globally interoperable wireless charging ecosystem.”

However the rival WPC believes that this announcement solves little in trying to establish one clear leader in the wireless charging market, saying all that has resulted is a ‘bunch of unclarity’. Speaking to TechWeekEurope, WPC vice president of market development John Perzow said he thinks that the move will just see the two organisations create a mess of standards which will not be backwards compatible to older devices, unlike Qi, which is also futureproof and “continually evolving.”

“Qi is not something fixed in time,” Perzow said. “The specifications will continue to evolve to include whatever comes up over time to add value”. By providing a minimalist specification which companies can develop and elaborate on, Qi is facilitating the production of a range of products which can utilise its technology in a wider variety of ways.

Mainstream adoption

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Overall, Perzow believes that there are currently around 40 million devices worldwide sporting Qi technology available worldwide, with 63 models having the technology built in or featuring in accompanying OEM accessories. This number will only continue to grow, as the market moves from its current late-early adopter phase towards the early mainstream adoption phase, which Perzow believes will happen by the end of this year or early 2015.

What makes the rivalry more confusing, however, is that manufacturers and businesses can side with whichever technology they feel suits their businesses better. For example, HTC has sided with Rezence, and ZTE recently signed up to Qi.

Some even double up, with Samsung by far the biggest culprit. A founder member of the A4WP with Qualcomm, it announced recently it was also putting its support behind Qi, which appears to be the technology used in the S charging pads available for its flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone, including a back cover and an S Charger pad.

The company is also releasing an updated version of its S View Cover, which packs a wireless charger into a phone cover. Primarily used for viewing notifications without the need to open your device, the cover allows the device to be charged wirelessly through either through its own power source or by the S Charger Pad.

But splitting your devices between the two standards may not be such bad idea, believes Perzow. “The only reason anyone joins a standards group is because they see it as something they want to invest in,” he says. Backing a standard and using its technology to get products out into the market early is crucial for manufacturers, as no company wants to be the one following the existing leaders.

rezance wireless chargingFriendly rivalry?

However despite the intense competition between the WPC and the A4WP, there is apparently little actual conflict between the sides. According to Perzow, the wireless power industry is a very open and collaborative environment, with the WPC having an advantage as it is an open and transparent group which is more focused on evolving the technology, rather than running a business.

Yet neither side wants to attack the other, he says, adding that there are discussions continually going on between the three groups as to how best work together and develop a complete ‘vision’ on wireless charging.

“We just want to keep on doing what we’re doing, continue to evolve the specification so that it’s modern and adds value, and keep getting the cost down,” he says.

But as long as the factions stay separate, there remains a barrier to establishing a uniform standard for wireless charging in devices, meaning users will still have to make a difficult choice regarding which to root for.

Wireless charging will continue to grow as people experience the ease of use it brings,” Cherepenina says. “With the right ecosystem to support users, wireless charging has endless possibilities for businesses and consumers. We see people falling in love with wireless charging but they need to try it to believe how much easier it can make everyday tasks.

“Like all new technologies there’s an adoption curve, this takes time but we’re proud to be at the front of it.”

“The value of the wireless charging market is unknown until the battle is over,” believes Perzow, and with the two superpowers continuing to fight on, the wireless charging war is a long way from its conclusion.

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