The fallacy of wireless power

Induction chargers promise convenience but use more power and take more space -- and they're not wireless

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Finally, charging pads are too bulky to carry during travel, such as in a backpack or a briefcase, much less in a pocket or a purse. You'll still need traditional USB chargers, concedes the Wireless Power Consortium's Treffer. But the inductive-charging industry and proponents such as Accenture's Tom Stuermer, a consultant in its high-tech and communications practice, say that after a half-decade or so, inductive charging pads will be so ubiquitous that even business travelers won't need to carry wired USB chargers. "People can rely on a short trip to Starbucks to top off the caffeine and battery," Stuermer predicts.

Maybe, but ubiquitous infrastructure takes a very long time to develop, and someone needs to be able to pay for it. A decade after the iPod, most hotels still don't provide compatible radios and alarm clocks. It took nearly as long for Wi-Fi to become reasonably available in high-traffic locations such as airports and fast-food restaurants, but even today the provider landscape is an incompatible mishmash. USB power ports in airport lobbies are still rare, five years after the iPhone, suggesting that ubiquitous infrastructure itself is years off.

This chicken-and-egg problem bedevils any technology that requires an infrastructure in place for the value to be realized. Inductive charging is in no worse shape than the others, so adoption will be mainly local for years to come, meaning in people's homes and at their desks, likely at their own expense. That in turn means a larger immediate advantage is needed -- and I don't see saving a few seconds of plugging in a cable qualifies as an advantage.

The standards are coming, along with the industry battles
Today, the Wireless Power Consortium's Qi standard is supported by some big device manufacturers, notably Google's Motorola Mobility unit, Huawei, HTC, LG, and Nokia, as well as big carriers, such as France Telecom, Japan's Softbank (soon to own Sprint in the United States), and Verizon Wireless. A bunch of consumer electronics companies, such as Belkin, NEC, Onkyo, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, Ricoh, Samsung, Sony, Stanley Black & Decker (the power tools maker), Toshiba, and Visteon (a maker of car electronics), are onboard too, so those two barriers are going away. At least they could -- there's a second group called the Power Matters Alliance supported by AT&T, General Motors (think in-car charging), Google, and Starbucks.

Although there's a risk of adoption-slowing market fragmentation and thus product incompatibility, I suspect it's too late for PMA, given that Qi is already deployed in shipping products such as the Nokia 920, the LG-made Google Nexus 4, and the Verizon versions of the Nokia 820 and HTC Windows Phone 8X, whereas the PMA technology is still in formation.

But given that Google is selling products using one standard (Qi) but joining the chief rival's organization (PMA), it's quite possible we'll see one of those interminable technology-industry wars. Some vendors will compete over who owns the technology -- it's no accident Energizer supports the Qi standard, while competitor Powermat developed the PMA one -- and others like Google will play all sides as customers sit on their hands.

It's at least annoying that Nokia and HTC sell models of their Lumia 800 series and 8X smartphones with Qi (for Verizon) and models of the same smartphones without (for AT&T and T-Mobile). Out of the gate, their products are fractured, so a company wanting to support Qi in its own facilities or for its own customers ends up favoring the customers of specific carriers -- a bad move.

There's also the Apple factor. The maker of the No. 2 smartphone (the iPhone), the top tablet (the iPad), and the top entertainment device (the iPod family) is supporting none of today's proposed inductive-charging standards, and it's mum on its plans. That may reduce the pace of demand, but it won't kill inductive charging any more than Apple's ignoring the near-field communications (NFC) technology has slowed NFC adoption in the rest of the market. Should Apple go a third way, it'll be much harder for businesses to put out incompatible power mats -- too many customers with contact-charging-compatible devices would be excluded.

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