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Clash of the Titans
An emerging battle for wireless charging standards
Brittany Northcross
By Brittany Northcross
Dec 14, 2017
5097

For the last decade, a mounting battle between competing wireless charging technologies has captivated industry watchers trying to determine which direction the pendulum of innovation will swing. But rarely has this debate over untethered connectivity reached a public sphere still overwhelming “wired” to their electronics and unversed in the mechanics of cordless power…until now. Though a majority of technology adopters are still wired to their devices—e.g. needing plugs and power cords to charge phones, cars, computers, tablets, etc.—the wireless charging industry is expected to be worth more than $23 billion by 2022. That means a global seismic shift in how the public powers its daily life is rapidly approaching with the economic and investment potential to match. However, there is a strong caveat to achievement of this breakthrough: the necessary mass adoption of the technology by consumers still bound to traditional charging modes. So why does a technology that offers ease, convenience, and mobility to our lives struggle to find mass acceptance by consumers? The answer lies in the battle between the competing technologies themselves: primarily Qi from Wireless Power Consortium and the AirFuel Alliance.

 

Experts agree the long-term viability of wireless charging technology depends upon a universal standard for sundry devices to be compatible with a single charging standard. Simply put, a wireless charger must be able to support all the devices in a household, and vice versa devices manufactured and sold from various companies across the globe must be compatible with a single charger. Consumers cannot be burdened with the confusion from needing to acquire multiple types of wireless chargers and adapters to transition to new technology.  Thus we enter the battle between AirFuel and Qi to be the declared universal standard.

 

In February 2017, Apple Inc.’s decision to join the WPC, a group of over 250 device and technology companies that back Qi technology seemingly ended the competition and solidified Qi’s dominance of the industry’s future. But while many corners will herald this move as better for consumers because we will be one step closer to a universal wireless charging standard, there should be strong doubt to the benefit a submission to Qi technology ultimately provides. Examining the technological components of AirFuel and Qi, there can be little debate AirFuel has the superior technology, but Qi the greater market presence due to early adoption. That Apple chose ubiquity, and therefore greater profit potential, at the expense of superior, more convenient technology is nothing to cheer at. This move will ultimately hinder the industry’s embrasure by a global marketplace.

 

Understanding the Technology

Until 2015, there were 3 major competing wireless charging technology standards: Qi by WPC, Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and Power Matters Alliance (PMA). That year A4WP and PMA merged to form the AirFuel alliance and jointly combat WPC which dwarfed their market shares.

 

Qi is the most pervasive wireless charging standard available, already equipping many products including android phones, tablets, etc. Based on inductive technology, coils of wire create magnetic fields in a loop current and which generates an electric current in a separate, adjacent coil. Power is then transferred over air to your device to charge. Inductive technology is sporadic and short range, normally achieving wireless charging distances of less than 3cm, but steady improvements have been made.  All Qi enabled products are built to support inductive wireless charging.

PMA was also based on inductive charging technology, but with different mechanisms, connective systems, and charging frequencies than Qi. However, A4WP was based on resonant technology, where an oscillating electromagnetic field is created between two coils. One coil generates the current and a receiving coil with the same frequency receives the charge and converts it into power to charge your device. This technological adaptation provides a more beneficial user experience, including greater charging distances between the device and power source and the ability to charge multiple devices simultaneously. Though the charging speeds achieved are not as powerful as with induction, this is outweighed by the freedom to place your device simply near the charger and not on it. If the wireless charging industry is based upon the promise of untethered connectivity, resonance delivers.

AirFuel’s merger of these two technologies under a single umbrella was a boon to the growth potential of the industry. AirFuel chargers have the ability to charge devices manufactured with inductive or resonant charging capabilities, providing consumers with flexibility and choice when choosing their devices. Buyers won’t have to consider how to make all their devices compatible with a charger; instead a charger would simply be compatible with their various devices.  This is the level of universality for which the industry should be striving. While some newer Qi devices have tried to incorporate resonance charging into their systems, the outcome is far inferior because Qi was not designed for that purpose. The mechanics are simply incompatible unless the WPC is willing to build a new system from infancy.

 

A Step Backward

 Wireless charging standards are governed by company cooperation and integration of technology across manufacturers. The merger of A4WP and PMA into AirFuel was a necessary and magnificent step to achieving mass adoption of wireless charging by consumers needing a smooth transition to technological advancement. But Qi continued to dominate market share due to its early presence in the industry. Companies like Samsung with massive consumer bases had already joined the WPC before Airfuel was an option; most devices released across manufacturers  support the Qi standard. But AirFuel still posed a significant threat to Qi due to its superior capabilities. The battle was far from over and the competition only spurred the quest for faster innovation to create the best product possible. 

When Apple joined WPC in February 2017, industry analysts heralded an end to the wireless standard war. Apple’s global hold on the smartphone and tablet market meant there would be little use for other companies to try and work with AirFuel. If a majority of products are equipped to support Qi, why waste time and development achieving compatibility with another system? This development is a distressing setback back to the growth and development or wireless charging. Consumers were better off with Airfuel’s innovation and potential, but will likely now be saddled with Qi and its limitations. Yes, they removed the wire, but Qi has not eliminated the physical connection one needs to a charger or the one-device/one-charger rule.  The user experience is disappointingly the same. Far more intuitive, AirFuel device charging could be automatic and invisible.  Place a charger conveniently out of the way, and any time your device was nearby, it would charge.

 Truthfully Apple need not have joined the WPC if it wanted to incorporate wireless charging into its systems. It easily could have collaborated to integrate Qi into its device models without unfairly shifting market speculation to AirFuel’s detriment. But Apple knew what it was doing with its announcement and the signal it would send about the future of the wireless standards war. Truthfully it, and companies like Samsung along with PC manufactures like Dell and IBM, should endeavor to collaborate with AirFuel and the handful of other wireless charging technologies in development today. For a truly open and progressive marketplace, company membership in the WPC should not preclude the pursuit innovation on all fronts. In its current state, the market has conceded to Qi too easily. Time will tell if the industry is able to right itself and seek technological possibility before conceding to bottom-line profits. 

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