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Wireless Charging May Not Be Doomed To Irrelevance

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

An LED light draws power wirelessly from the charging station below. (Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

BARCELONA—Wireless charging is a decent idea that’s been held back for years by double and sometimes triple or quadruple vision: Instead of picking one standard that works well enough, the industry has fragmented itself among competing, incompatible implementations that may each flop and leave buyers stuck with useless hardware.

Yes, you’ve seen this format-war movie before… on Beta, Laserdisc, and HD-DVD.

But this year’s Mobile World Congress provided a little more room for optimism than before.

First off, Samsung’s debut of the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge—each of which support both Qi and Powermat wireless charging, the two most widely deployed versions—means devices capable of wireless charging will soon occupy millions of pockets and purses.

Qi, pronounced “chee,” has been around for a while. A handout from the Wireless Power Consortium, the trade group behind the specification, cites 79 phones that are compatible. But none of these 79 phones has been a flagship model you could expect to find sold by all four major U.S. wireless carriers, or bought by millions of shoppers. Note that while the S6 and S6 Edge will be able to draw current from both Qi and Powermat chargers, Samsung told me its own wireless-charging accessory will be a Qi surface.

It’s also getting slightly easier to find Qi charging surfaces. Last October, Marriott began putting Qi hardware in the lobbies of some of its hotels, and at MWC Ikea announced that it would soon sell furniture with Qi chargers built in.

A new smartphone app by the Qi developer Aircharge aims to show off all the places that its wireless charging surfaces are available; in Manhattan, it only found three publicly accessible Qi locations, all Marriott properties. So much for progress in the Big Apple.

And as the S6’s ambidextrous wireless charging capability illustrates, there are two sides to this story. Powermat’s longstanding technology is being folded into a developing rival to Qi called Rezence, a name that alludes to its use of magnetic resonance instead of Qi’s inductive charging.

A Nexus 4 phone hovers above the Qi logo. (Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

What that means in practice, Qualcomm product manager Geoff Gordon explained here, is the ability to leave your device anywhere on a charging surface, not just within a tight radius of a charging target as is the case in current Qi surfaces. This system also doesn’t require direct contact, which Gordon demonstrated by holding an LED lamp half an inch over the surface providing it with electricity.

What Rezone doesn’t have, however, is support in shipping hardware—remember, Samsung’s S6 and S6 Edge only work with older Powermat chargers. Gordon said the group behind Rezence, the Alliance for Wireless Power, expects to see phone accessories go on sale in the second half of this year and Rezence-equipped phones arrive by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Wireless Power Consortium is working on a resonant-charging addition to the Qi specification that will bring some of the same virtues of Rezence. Existing Qi devices (disclosure: including my own Nexus 4) will work with future Qi surfaces that support this specification, Aircharge’s Ryan Sanderson said.

Another development I’m waiting to see: smartwatches besides the Moto 360 supporting wireless charging. If those things must require a proprietary charger instead of a standard micro-USB cable, why not employ wireless charging instead? At least some smartwatch owners would then be in a position to use the same charging surface for both watch and phone.

Meanwhile, there’s another possibility that’s hung over this technology since my first introduction to it in 2007: Apple, unrepresented at this show and in the two existing wireless-charging groups, will ship its own proprietary version of the concept. It might take the other big Apple for wireless charging to truly catch on. 

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.