The Wire-Free PC

One of the ways smartphones and tablets have a clear advantage over typical PCs is in the area of wires—or should I say, the lack thereof. Most people regularly use their smartphones and tablets completely free of wires. Yes, they charge the devices at night with a power cord, but that’s usually about it. When it comes to actually using the devices, doing so while plugged into anything (including power) seems kind of odd.

In the case of PCs on the other hand, even with the extended battery life available with today’s notebooks, most people tend to use a PC while it’s at least plugged into power. Perhaps as a result, it’s also not the least bit unusual to have other peripherals plugged into the PC. Whether it’s just a keyboard and mouse, or a printer, or a full-on docking station replete with all kinds of wired connectivity options, PCs often feel like they want to be plugged in.

Of course, that’s also one of the real benefits of a PC—the ability to extend its capabilities via plug-in peripherals has been (and continues to be) one of its key advantages and differentiators. Want to attach a larger display, plug in an external storage device, listen to better speakers, or attach a specific function peripheral like a MIDI musical keyboard? PCs are almost always the best choice in those scenarios.

But let’s be honest. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the option to do all of those things without wires? Just as we’re starting to see the beginning of using smartphones and tablets with more peripherals (ironically, wired in some cases—such as for projectors or large displays), so too are we seeing a growing interest in using more things wirelessly with a PC.

For years, the problem has been limited by both technology and competing standards (and, to be honest, there are still a few challenges with each). However, important progress is being made—not just on PCs, but in supported peripherals. The latter is critical because the limited number of peripherals that actually support a given standard has always been one of the big problems with trying to go wireless. For displays, multiple standards have converged around Miracast and WiDi, and now many projectors, TVs and displays include built-in WiDi receiver capabilities. There’s even support for WiDi built into Windows 8.1 (as well as Windows 10). For many other peripherals, Bluetooth support has become faster, more common, and more robust.

The last missing link has been power. The power cord and wired charger are still ever-present reminders of how we aren’t completely wireless. But there’s hope on the horizon. The mobile phone industry saw modest uptake of wireless charging pads using the Qi standard, but there were important lessons learned from these early induction-based chargers (similar to the technology used for years in cordless electric shavers or toothbrushes). For one, without proper placement on a charging pad, the technology didn’t always work. Second, it was terribly power inefficient, often using much more draw from the wall than a direct wired connection. Third, it wasn’t designed to charge the larger batteries found in devices like notebook PCs.[pullquote]The power cord and wired charger are still ever-present reminders of how we aren’t completely wireless. But there’s hope on the horizon. [/pullquote]

As a result, work has been done with magnetic resonance technology and one of the outcomes is the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) industry group’s Rezence standard. While no Rezence-based products have started shipping yet, many are on the horizon. By the end of this year, we should have a range of charging pads and devices with built-in Rezence support to choose from. Importantly, the A4WP organization recently announced a merger with the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) organization, yet another standards body made up primarily of retail stores, restaurants and battery companies like Duracell. The companies apparently will settle on a new name still to be determined.

The combination of these two important groups should resolve some of the intra-industry standards battles that have slowed adoption of a technology many people could clearly benefit from. (To be fair, the Wireless Power Consortium and their Qi standard are still evolving. In fact, version 2.0 of Qi is also being based on magnetic resonance principles, but there does seem to be a great deal of industry momentum around Rezence.)

Intel is planning to bring Rezence-based wireless charging support to notebook PCs later this year, as part of their Skylake platform. When that happens, the possibility of having a truly wire-free PC—and even one that’s completely free of ports or connectors of any kind (since they wouldn’t be necessary)—will finally come to pass.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

5 thoughts on “The Wire-Free PC”

  1. I’ve been dreaming about wireless electricity for decades. Do you know how much 2/0, 4/0, 12/3, and 14/3 wiring we use in the entertainment business? I know this isn’t the the context or scale you are talking about, but I can imagine what you are talking about being the forerunner to that solution.

    One day!

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