Starbucks' new 'wireless' charging won't work for most devices

The inductive-charging wars are likely to limit the technology's adoption for the foreseeable future

Starbucks today announced the rollout of "wireless" charging nationwide, but nearly all mobile handsets and consumer devices currently in use that incorporate inductive contact charging technology won't be able to use it.

Nevertheless, with more than 8,000 company-operated stores in the U.S., the move by Starbucks will create a substantial network and infrastructure for inductive charging -- in which power passes through special surface materials when they touch, rather than through traditional direct-wire plugs and ports -- in the hospitality sector and lead to shipments of more than 100,000 Powermat inductive chargers, according to research by IHS, which tracks product shipments in several electronics categories.

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There are now three inductive charging consortiums vying for dominance in the market, which has enormous potential. The combined global market for inductive power receivers and transmitters is expected to rise to 1.7 billion unit shipments in 2023, up from about 25 million last year, according to IHS. The conflicting and competing standards continue to create uncertainty for mobile device manufacturers looking to adopt wireless charging.

According to IHS, 80 percent of consumers want inductive charging in public places, so the move by Starbucks was expected.

Starbucks, which has been testing inductive charging in San Francisco and Boston, will deploy Powermat Spots in designated areas on tables and counters where customers can place their compatible device to charge through induction. Customers can find enabled locations on Powermat's website.

Duracell Powermat is a member of the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), one of the three consortiums rolling out products. The PMA earlier this year announced a deal to share technologies with the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP). That partnership pitted the two against the largest of the industry groups, the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which touts the Qi (pronounced "chee") inductive charging specification.

Of the 20 million consumer devices estimated to have shipped in 2013 with inductive charging capabilities, nearly all were built with the Qi specification, according to IHS. The majority of the Qi technology was built into devices such as the Google Nexus 4 and 5 smartphones, Google's Nexus 7 second-generation tablet, and a number of models in Nokia's Lumia smartphone line.

An example of Texas Instrument's inductive charging coil and chip technology that adheres to the Qi specification. The device can be much smaller and would be the electrical receiver in a mobile device. "These devices will not be compatible with the [inductive] chargers due to be installed in Starbucks stores," said Ryan Sanderson, IHS's associate director of Power Supply & Storage Components.

Still, devices that come native with the PMA inductive charging being installed in Starbucks stores are beginning to emerge, Sanderson said. Since May, Sprint and Virgin Mobile US have both been offering the Kyocera Hydro Vibe, a low-end smartphone, with PMA inductive charging built in. AT&T now offers an upgrade for the Samsung Galaxy S5, which supports the PMA specification, and an add-on case for the Apple iPhone is also available from Duracell Powermat.

"The number of consumer devices in circulation that are compatible with Powermat's PMA compared with those built to the longer established Qi specification is, however, still minimal," Sanderson said.

Along with Starbucks coffee shops, McDonald's has also rolled out Powermat pilots in restaurants.

There are two types of "wireless" charging -- loosely coupled magnetic resonance and tightly-coupled inductive charging. Both are based on the same science of creating a magnetic field through which power can be transferred between devices using the same frequency.

The WPC's Qi standard enables inductive or pad-style charging, and the group is working on a specification for short-distance (1.5cm or less) magnetic resonance charging.

The PMA also champions a magnetic inductive charging technology that requires a more tightly coupled link between the charger and device. In addition, the PMA developed an open network API for network services management. So, for example, Starbucks would be able to identify mobile devices charging in its cafés and gather usage pattners or target users with marketing and advertising. "The open network API is certainly a valuable part of PMA's offering. It allows for a lot of flexibility and future development," IHS's Sanderson said.

By contrast, the A4WP-developed Rezence magnetic resonant inductive charging spec allows for a loosely coupled power transfer -- meaning multiple devices can be placed on a charging pad and moved around with little affect to the charge.

The A4WP and the PMA have agreed to share each other's specifications so they can offer both types of inductive charging, but the two technologies are still independent.

The multimode charging designs can provide interoperability for future designs, but at an added cost, according to Sanderson. "A developer who wishes to produce something compatible to both standards needs to be a member of both associations, so they both exist very much as single entities still," Sanderson said. "Producing something compatible with both will cost more and provides a reasonable challenge (multiple antennas, separate shielding, etc.)."

All three inductive charging consortiums have massive backing from large mobile device manufacturers and consumer product brands. The Qi specification, however, has the greatest industry support. More than 200 companies, among them a veritable who's who of electronics, such as LG Electronics, Sony, Nokia, and Verizon Wireless.

By comparison, the A4WP now has 100 members, including Broadcom, Delphi, Fairchild Semiconductor, Haier, Intel, LG Electronics, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics, SanDisk, TDK, and Texas Instruments. The PMA has 72 members.

Among the tech firms that haven't weighed in one way or the other on inductive charging is Apple.

Long term, the added premium that multistandard inductive charging demands is unlikely to allow for mass adoption, said Sanderson, adding that a single-mode solution will be required to drive costs down.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com. See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com. Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

This story, "Starbucks' new 'wireless' charging won't work for most devices" was originally published by Computerworld.

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