The State of Wireless Charging Standards in Mobile

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Wireless charging in the mobile space has seen its debut almost 6 years ago now with the introduction of the Palm Touchstone. Back in the day, this was quite a revolutionary advancement for mobile devices and I still remember the discussion on how wireless charging would be the future. Six years later, I have yet to own a wireless charger or know somebody who uses one. Analyst prediction of quick adoption failed to materialize and the industry is still trying to consolidate a universal charging standard that would be compatible across all devices. While Palm sparked the wireless charging wars back in 2009, it took device manufacturers many more years before we reached (or have yet to reach) a level of adoption such that the average consumer would be able to confidently use the technology as a de-facto everyday way of charging their devices in the same way that microUSB has.

With the advent of Qi and PMA as opposing and incompatible charger technologies the industry saw a period of uncertainty over which standard would finally make it into the mainstream. In the end, it might be neither, but before we delve into the future, let’s have a look at how wireless charging has evolved over the last few years and how the mechanisms actually work.

While Palm was first to introduce a wireless charger in the Palm Pre in form of the Touchstone, this was a proprietary standard which wasn’t adopted by other vendors. In fact, while Palm announced and presented the Touchstone at CES 2009, a small group of manufacturers including Logitech, Philips, Sanyo and Texas Instruments gathered around in December of 2008 to form the Wireless Power Consortium, or WPC.

The WPC released later in 2009 the first specification the Qi 1.0 which would become the first proper open wireless charging standard for low power devices. “Qi”, pronounced “chee”, is named after the same Chinese word for “life force” or “energy flow”. In the following months and years the WPC saw a lot of companies adopt the standard and join as members of the consortium. The big names such as LG, Motorola, HTC, Samsung, Sony and Nokia were on board and at this point it looked like Qi was on its way to become the de-facto standard for large scale adoption.

The Nokia Lumia 820 and 920, and more importantly the Nexus 4 were the first devices which introduced Qi charging built-in by default by the manufacturers and were available towards the end of 2012. The biggest enabler of wireless charging though was probably Samsung – starting with the Galaxy S3, Samsung integrated wireless charging capability into their PMICs and exposed on the back of the phones not only pins for the charger coils, but also power contacts which we’ll come back to later. Cheap charger coils that could be added between the battery and cover and attached to the wireless charging pins meant that users could quickly experience wireless charging without too great of an investment.

While the WPC seemed to have won the standards-race with an early start and rising adoption in 2012, the same year the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) was formed as a competing standard. While the WPC seems to have concentrated in the mobile space, the PMA aims to be a more generic standard for other use-cases. Starbuck’s June 2014 announcement of the adoption of PMA notoriously surprised consumers as PMA had seen very little adoption by the market versus Qi. PMA seems to continue to gain adoption by sheer brute force introduction of North American outlets such as McDonalds and Starbucks but faced the problem of needing special charging adapters as no device was yet compatible with the new standard.

While both the WPC and PMA make use of inductive charging technology, a third standard appeared in early 2012 in the form of “Rezence”. The standard is developed by the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP). Here the power transfer technology is based on magnetic resonance instead of electromagnetic induction. Rezence sees support of some big companies such as Intel, Broadcom, Qualcomm and Samsung and promises a true alternative to induction charging that solves many of the problems faced with Qi and Powermat (PMA) solutions.

In January 2015 things were shook up again as the PMA and A4WP announced a merger of the two alliances. The merger aims to consolidate the swath of charging standards. While the merger won’t be finalized until June 30th 2015 and things could still change till then, what this means in practice is that Rezence will be seeing a much faster and larger adoption than anticipated through boost of PMA members.

At the time of writing the A4WP has a published 122 members, PMA 68 and the WPC 213 companies.

While Rezence seems to be the most promising candidate technology-wise to being adopted as the “USB of wireless charging” in the distant future, equipment manufacturers will first see the introduction of dual-and tri-standard compatible devices. The Galaxy S6 was one of the first devices to include both Qi and Powermat compatible charging built-in, it still lacks Rezence charging capability. What I expect for future devices though is cross-standard compatibility with help of adoption of solutions which support both inductive and resonance charging.

At MWC 2015 we’ve seen the demonstration of a slew of such solutions by for example MediaTek, Broadcomm and others. It is clear that manufacturers are going for multi-standard compliant end-devices in the future, and it’s the ecosystem around the charging stations which will decide on how things will evolve in the future.