The agreement announced Tuesday that allows two of the three major wireless-charging consortiums to share their specifications means there's one less obstacle in the way of a wary mobile device industry looking to adopt the technology.
On its face, the merger between the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) should allow them to create a consistent wireless charging experience for consumers with enabled devices.
That means consumers would no longer have to worry about whether their smartphone or tablet adheres to the A4WP's Rezence or the PMA's Powermat specification when they drop it onto a wireless charging spot in Starbucks, McDonald's or at an enabled store.
However, the partnership between two specification groups still leaves a horse race, with the winner determining which wireless charging technology will cross the finish line.
Like the Blu-Ray Disc and HD DVD standards (and Betamax and VHS before that), one wireless charging specification will eventually win out. Which one does will be decided by device manufacturers, not industry groups.
But, the partnership has brought together A4WP's magnetic resonance (loosely coupled) charging and PMA's inductive (tightly coupled) charging. Basically, resonance allows for multiple devices to charge at once on a pad in any configuration. Inductive charging requires an enabled device to be more precisely placed on a pad before it will charge.
Mark Hunsicker, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, demonstrates Rezence wireless charging in an IKEA coffee table.
The A4WP already had both inductive and resonant charging as part of its Rezence specification. But, the tie-up between two rivals also strengthens them against an older and larger challenger - the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). The WPC owns the widely adopted Qi specification, which is based on inductive wireless charging, but the group also demonstrated the added ability to do resonant charging at this year's CES show.
The Qi specification, which also includes resonance and inductive technology, is supported by 200 companies, among them a veritable who's who of electronics, including LG Electronics, Sony, Nokia and Verizon Wireless. "Qi has been dominant and is way ahead of the game," said William Stofega, a program director at research firm IDC.
There are now more than 400 Qi-enabled devices today, including mobile phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S3, Nokia Lumia 1020, LG G2, Motorola Droid Maxx and Mini and the Google Nexus 5 phone and Nexus 7 tablet.
"Almost everything [enabled for wireless charging] that shipped last year was compliant with the WPC specification," said Ryan Sanderson, the associate director Power Supply and Storage Components at research firm IHS.
Even so, the WPC will undoubtedly be concerned about the alliance between the PMA and the A4WP, "just because of their market share," Sanderson added.
Mobile device makers, such as Samsung and LG Electronics, see wireless charging as a plus, given that consumers would likely prefer a phone with wireless charging over one without.
Consolidation within the wireless charging industry isn't new. Last year, Duracell's Powermat Technologies subsidiary announced a merger with its European counterpart, PowerKiss, in a deal that brought two disparate wireless power specifications together under one umbrella. Both companies fall under the PMA consortium.
PMA was born from Powermat, which claims it has more than 1,500 charging spots in the U.S. In Europe, PowerKiss said it has 1,000 charging spots in airports, hotels and some McDonald's restaurants.
So for the A4WP, which already had both resonant and inductive wireless charging in its specification, the partnership is more about increasing its customer base as well as adding smart technology.
The PMA's specification includes an API that monitors the power that's transmitted, and can manage pre-specified policies, such as how much power any device requires before it's fully charged.
Daniel Schreiber, president of Powermat and a board member of the PMA, said Powermat's inductive technology is more efficient than resonant charging, making it preferable for places like a coffee shop that doesn't want to waste power.
Consumers also may be more nervous about having their mobile devices charge next to a stranger's, Schreiber said, making inductive charging's single device limitation more attractive.
"They're highly complimentary implementations, much like WiFi and 4G," Schreiber said, referring to magnetic induction and resonant charging. "They're not displacing each other, but complimentary to one anther."
Not everyone agrees.
The end game will be resonance-only wireless charging with machine-to-machine data transfer, according to Reinier van der Lee, director of product marketing at Broadcom. "We always felt resonant technology was the way to go, but we also feel the [PMA's] inductive install base needs to be offered a transition path to resonant charging," van der Lee said.
An example of Texas Instrument's wireless charging coil and chip technology. The device can be much smaller and would be the electrical receiver in a mobile device.
Broadcom, a member of the A4WP, plans to unveil a chipset later this year that will include wireless power management capabilities. Texas Instruments already makes wireless charging chipsets.
John Perzow, the vice president of market development for the WPC, said the rival organizations joined forces after realizing their own products could not address the entire market. But the PMA and A4WP will have to make major tradeoffs to achieve interoperability between their technologies.
"For instance, you can always shoehorn two technologies in one phone, a so-called 'dual-mode' approach. But this increases cost and complexity and typically requires tradeoffs like lower efficiency," Perzow said.
IHS's Sanderson is hopeful that all three wireless power consortiums can eventually work together on universal standards. Until then, handset, tablet and other electronic device manufacturers will remain wary about choosing one technology over another, fearful they'll make the wrong bet.
Perzow said the WPC is in talks with the PMA and the A4WP.
"But let's be clear," he said. "What PMA and A4WP announced is not one merged group. They both are filling gaps with technology the other didn't have," Perzow said.
"When you buy Qi, you know it will work with whatever technology and features evolve down the road," he continued. "Keeping this compatibility is a top goal, and we're very interested and eager to cooperate with anyone that shares that goal, Including PMA and A4WP."
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Wireless charging company WiTricity demonstrates a new power charging device that can recharge multiple iPhone 5 units without needing a specific charging location.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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