Wireless power – a tale of two standards

Anthony Caruana
20 April, 2015
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Last week, we reported on IKEA’s new wirelessly power accessories and furniture. Sure, it a great way of reducing cable clutter but it’s not of much use if your iPhone and other mobile devices can’t use it.

Whenever an emerging technology hits the market there’s often a standards war fought. It happened with VHS and Betamax, HD DVD and Blu-ray, and other new ways of doing things. In many cases, the reasons for success of one party over the other had little to do with quality and more to do with commercial interest.

The same is emerging in the world of wireless power. There are two main standards emerging: Powermat and Qi (pronounced “chee”).

Powermat

Founded by Proctor and Gamble and Powermat Technologies just over three years ago, the Power Matters Alliance, or PMA, has defined a set of standards around wireless power transfer.

About a year ago, a third rival in the wireless power race, Alliance for Wireless Power, signed an agreement with PMA that ensures the two standards will work together. That agreement is about to become a formal merger with the two organisations planning to form a single entity.

Powermat received a huge boost when Starbucks announced they would install Powermat compatible charging plates in their stores across the United States and to test the wireless chargers in select European and Asian markets.

Qi

Qi is an interface standard developed by the Wireless Power Consortium for inductive electrical power transfer over distances of up to 4 cm.  Mobile device manufacturers including Asus, HTC, Huawei, LG Electonics, Motorola Mobility, Nokia, Sony, BlackBerry, and Samsung are working with Qi to integrate their standard into their hardware. However, Samsung has a foot in both camps.

Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 smartphone comes in Powermat and Qi versions.

IKEA’s wireless gear uses the Qi system.

What does all this mean for the iPhone and iPad?

Although Qi and Powermat solve the same problem, they employ different technical solutions. And, for now, the two standards don’t interoperate.

It’s hard to imagine Apple adopting either of the two standards in the short to medium term. While Samsung has taken the approach of creating two variants of their flagship smartphone that would be counter to Apple’s usual approach.

Apple prefers to adopt a single standard and run with it. They did that early on with USB, followed with Firewire and then Thunderbolt before their recent shift to USB-C. The market is not favouring Qi or Powermat so it’s hard to imagine Apple backing one or the other until a clear winner emerges.

For now, it means the only way iPhone and iPad users can access wireless charging systems is through cases that add the capability. And that means adding some bulk to your device.

Until a clear winner emerges and Apple decides wireless charging is a good option for its customers, we’ll remain tethered via cables to our USB ports and power outlets.

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