Why you plug gadgets into the wall like a Neanderthal

Wireless charging? We have the technology; what we don't have is industry vision -- or unity.

In the future, your phones, tablets and wearable computing gadgets won't come with chargers -- they'll use inductive chargers built into desks, kitchen counters, bedside tables, cars and other surfaces. Just placing a device on any convenient surface will charge it.

This future will be great for us lazy people, and there are environmental benefits as well.

More than one-third of the "stuff" that comes with your smartphone -- plastic, wiring and electronics -- is in the charger.

Each phone has its own personal charger destined inevitably for the landfill or an environmentally unfriendly recycling center.

How dumb is that? Billions of needless devices are manufactured and discarded every year.

Also, when a mobile phone is fully charged, or when the phone is removed from the charger, the charger continues to consume energy if you leave it plugged into the wall.

The promise of wireless charging is that it could solve both of those problems. With ubiquitous wireless charging, devices would no longer need chargers and power could be managed intelligently based on the device -- or on the absence of one -- much more efficiently.

We have the technology. So what's the holdup?

What's it going to take for wireless charging systems to be so ubiquitous that they're built into our tables, countertops, cars and desks?

What's it going to take for smartphones, tablets and wearable computing devices to not need dedicated internal chargers?

It's going to take a miracle. Here's why.

Why wireless charging has no juice

Yes, a few wireless charging gadgets are emerging here and there. But mostly, the product category is stuck in the dark ages.

The problem is that the wireless charging industry has three competing standards organizations and thus three different sets of standards and protocols. As a result, multiple technologies are competing to become the one true standard.

One of the standards bodies is the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), whose members include AT&T, Duracell Powermat, HTC, Huawei, Kyocera, LG, NEC, Power Kiss, Samsung, Sharp, Starbucks, ZTE and dozens of other companies. The PMA's standards and protocols are known collectively as "Power 2.0."

Then there's the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which includes Belkin, Energizer, HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony, Verizon and many others. You may have heard about the WPC's devices, which are marketed under the Qi brand (pronounced "chee").

The third wireless charging standards organization is the Alliance for Wireless Power (AWP), whose members include Deutsche Telekom, HTC, Intel, LG, Qualcomm, Samsung, SanDisk and others.

The PMA and WPC are the main players. The AWP was largely irrelevant in the United States until recently when, for some reason, Intel joined.

(You'll notice that some companies are in all three organizations.)

As a result of the industry's disunity, you might have to be careful when buying devices and chargers to make sure they match. And even if you do make sure your devices and chargers all adhere to the same standard, you might still find that you can't charge your gear in some public wireless charging venues.

Still, there's been a lot of progress in wireless charging.

Starbucks, Coffee Bean and McDonald's are all testing wireless charging stations in their restaurants. Starbucks has tests underway in 27 locations in Boston and Silicon Valley. Coffee Bean is testing in Los Angeles. And McDonald's has test locations in New York and Europe.

Delta Air Lines has wireless charging stations in its Sky Club lounge in New York's La Guardia Airport and at La Guardia's Marine Air Terminal.

Automakers are starting to build wireless charging stations into some car models. For example, GM plans to put wireless chargers in the Chevy Volt, starting with 2014 models and expanding to other models later. Toyota and Chrysler have previously announced support for wireless charging.

Interesting developments are happening in unexpected places.

One of the boldest is from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which is testing an electric bus that recharges from buried power cables under the asphalt. Sounds cool, but the idea probably doesn't have wheels in the real world.

The European Poker Tour has announced a publicity stunt in which players will get free wireless charging via custom-made poker tables that have built-in charging mats.

The truly interesting developments in wireless charging for you and me, however, are happening in the smartphone and tablet worlds.

Wireless charging coming to a gadget near you!

Google's new Nexus 7 represents something close to the future of wireless charging. It comes with wireless charging capability without an additional kit or add-on. Although it comes with a conventional wired charger, it doesn't come with its own wireless charger. You have to buy that separately.

If all handset and tablet makers adopted wireless charging for their devices and didn't include chargers with their products -- wireless or otherwise -- every gadget buyer would be forced to buy an all-purpose charger, and the industry would be on its way toward wireless nirvana.

The U.S. version of the Verizon LG G2 gets it right, too, with wireless charging out of the box. The phone should become available through Verizon on Sept. 12.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 has an optional wireless charging kit. The upgrade requires the replacement of the phone's back cover, which makes the device thicker. The phone's S Charger kit uses the Qi standard, so it should charge with any Qi charger.

An unconfirmed rumor says the still-unannounced BlackBerry Z30 will have Qi-based wireless charging. The rumor was started when the WPC included the device on its list of supporting gadgets.

Apple's various iPhones don't support wireless charging, unless you buy a separate case. Doing so adds a lot of bulk and heft to the iPhone. But it might be worth it.

Buqu Tech's Magnetyze wireless charging case for the iPhone 5 is one new option. (The company also makes similar cases for the iPhone 4 line and the Samsung Galaxy S3).

The ZENS wireless charging flip case is another option for the iPhone 5. (ZENS makes similar cases and pads for a wide variety of handset models.)

Sadly, most smartphones don't have wireless charging capability built in, or wireless charging aftermarket options.

Universal charging plates

Because of the standards wars, you have to choose between Power 2.0 and Qi universal chargers, if you want to go the wireless route. In general, however, Qi is the way to go for phones and tablets.

Energizer (you know, the bunny people) has a range of universal Qi chargers and smartphone cases.

You can also buy Qi charging plates from LG, Monster Watts, AGPtek, Esorun and others.

Some phones, such as the Nexus 4, the Nokia DT-900 and the LG WCP-300, have wireless Qi chargers that work pretty well with other Qi devices. The only problem is that they tend to be too small for charging tablets.

As you can see from my brief survey here, wireless charging is slouching toward some kind of ubiquity.

What we really need is one standard, and a handset and tablet industry that stops shipping chargers of any kind, but makes sure every device has wireless charging capability built in.

If that happened, we would be forced to embrace a new model where universal charging pads are found throughout our homes and in our offices and cars, and we would save time, money and energy because every device wouldn't come with its own dumb charger.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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