Wireless Charging: It’s Coming, but Probably Not to iOS

by Steve Wildstrom   |   October 19th, 2012

Pre with Touchstone

Wireless charging has been around for a long time. It’s what powers electric toothbrushes and cordless shavers and well as a lot of medical devices. But it has been very slow to make it to mobile electronic devices, but the Wireless Power Consortium aims to change that as it pushes ahead with its Wireless Qi (pronounced Chee) standard.

To date, wireless charging of mobile devices has been associated mainly with companies on the brink of doom. Palm and, briefly, Hewlett-Packard offered the Touchstone wireless charger for both Pre phones and the TouchPad tablet. Nokia is now offering it on its Lumia phones.

The principle of wireless charging, called resonant inductive coupling, is simple. An alternating current in a coil induces a current in a nearby coil. If the two coils are tuned to the same resonant frequency, the power transfer between them can be very efficient. And if the two coils are the same size, the magnetic field will be contained in the space between them.

The current Qi standard provides for 5 watts of power, adequate for smartphones but not for tablets, which take too long to charge at low wattage. A 10 W standard is on the way, but like all standards bodies, the WPC moves slowly and may take a while. But this is an area where standards are crucial. One of the reasons previous efforts failed to catch on is they were proprietary and the advantage of wireless charging lies in the ability to power a variety of devices from a single charging pad.

A number of handset makers, including Samsung, LG, and Motorola, are members of the consortium and while that doesn’t guarantee they will offer products, it at least shows interest. Delphi, the former General Motors electronics and parts division has just joined, increasing the prospect of automotive charging systems. But Apple is prominently missing from the membership list.

Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller recently dismissed wireless charging as bringing no real advantage to consumers. But WPC Chairman Menno Treffers, of Philips Electronics, says he was off the mark: “That’s a real misconception about what the point is. The point is the difference in the charging experience. I can best explain it by talking about my own experience. I used to have a USB charger on my desk, but in practice, I didn’t use it; it’s a hassle and you tend not to do it.If you have a Qi phone, you just put it on the pad and you pick it up. People keep their batteries charged much better.”

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • mhikl

    Phil probably has something there. I have an electric toothbrush and it sits in a corner that otherwise would be vacant. It’s the perfect solution for a stationary object that roosts on one nest. The thought of having to drag around or hunt for a special charger is just one more unnecessary grief that rests on the station of gimmickry.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Of course, the driving motivation for induction charging in the bathroom is safety. You really don’t want a toothbrush that’s plugged into the AC. Still, I could see a point to having a location on my desk reserved for a charging pad, but it would have to accomodate a large variety of devices.

      • mhikl

        Steve, that would be a desk at home, eh? I lost my first iPt at work, to mention only one such occurrence. And such is the way of the world. But agreed, should it be so accommodating and safely secure from hungry fingers, I could see a standardised charger being handy but I doubt it would ever completely relegate the old plug system obsolete.

        • steve_wildstrom

          Well, in my case it would be at home because that’s where I work. But this would work in the office too. For wireless charging to catch on, it has to be both cheap and ubiquitous. In other words, too cheap to steal.