Wireless Charging is Here, and it's Ready

February 24, 2012

Wireless charging, arguably the last barrier to a truly wireless smartphone/tablet future is already here and it's ready to ship. I never published a summary post of my CES experience (regrettable, I know), but one of the highlights of my time there was attending a panel on the future of battery technology in electronic devices. One of the panelists represented both the Wireless Power Consortium (developers of the wireless Qi electricity standard) and a licensee of the Qi tech called Fulton Innovation. What they talked about blew me away.

According to this panel of experts (and by experts I mean the guys actually developing the batteries that go into our phones; they definitely knew their chemistry) we've pretty much maxed out the capabilities of what Li-Ion can do in our increasingly-thin devices. Our batteries aren't getting any better. What determines battery life is 1) how big the battery is and 2) how efficiently the phone's hardware and software use the limited juice they have. Chips and software get better every year, of course, but we shouldn't expect to see a sudden 2-hour jump in average battery life by the end of this year. It's not going to happen. Chips and software can only do so much. Pretty bleak, right?

Here's the exciting part. The panel unanimously agreed that the key to having a constantly juiced-up phone isn't the battery itself; it's the way the user charges it.

How do you charge your phone? You probably just plug it in before going to bed and run it down to 20-30% by the end of the next day right? Apparently batteries don't like that (a big surprise to me); they like to be charged and discharged throughout the course of a day (say, in 10-20% intervals) instead of being completely depleted before being recharged. We're actually hurting our batteries by using them the way we typically do.

But who could blame us? Plugging in a phone at night and forgetting about it the next day is super convenient; why would we want to go through the hassle of plugging/unplugging our phones multiple times a day?

Well, wireless charging makes it easy. Being wireless is the key. Wireless is the big solution that had the whole panel nodding in agreement. Wireless is where the world is going.

With wireless charging tech, your phone could charge as it sits in your car's cup holder. It could charge through your purse as it sits on the kitchen counter. It could charge while it's on your desk at work. It could charge in your office's conference room table. It could charge on the desk of your home office. It could charge on your coffee table. It could charge on the aluminum stand of your iMac. It could charge on the table of your local McDonald's. There are so many places where a simple under-$20 inductive coil could be added to make keeping your phone charged a thoughtless process. With the Qi standard, it doesn't matter if you've got an iPhone, Android or Windows Phone; compatible charging "stations" would be all around you. Over a dozen Android phones already support the Qi standard (some with a new battery cover) already, and new ones will continue to come out. Oh, and think wireless charging would be slower than using a cable? Nope. Less efficient you say? Barely: it's currently 98% efficient (Edit: 70% efficient, I remembered incorrectly, but this will only get better). Oh, and because the current in the coil can be adjusted on the fly, the same panel could charge up both smartphones and tablets despite their difference in required current. Yeah, pretty cool stuff.

According to a Fulton Innovation rep at their CES booth, 2012 is going to be the year that wireless charging takes off. How can he be so sure? Because Fulton Innovation is one of the licensors of the Qi standard who works directly with smartphone-makers to implement the new tech. He knows because he's working with phone-makers already. Would Apple go with the Qi standard? According to the representative, it'd probably be a mistake not to. The description above only works if the whole industry agrees on just one wireless charging standard, and just like they did with USB-tethered power, they're likely to do so again with Qi. Competing against Qi would be like Apple competing against the current implementation of NFC in the next iPhone. Could they do it? Yeah. Would it make sense to? From my non-expert point of view, not really; it would just dramatically slow down the adoption rate of a wireless future. It'd be like the whole HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray situation again, except this time with much higher stakes. Who knows, we'll see, but I have no doubt that they're moving toward wireless charging whichever path they choose.