In January of 2009, the now-defunct smartphone and PDA maker Palm held a high-profile event at CES to introduce its Pre. Of the many great ideas unveiled that day, one unassuming new feature stuck with people well after the event: a flat puck called the Touchstone that could provide juice without having to be plugged into the phone.
All you had to do was rest the back of the phone against the puck and charging would commence. No bulky cases or shells. No special batteries. It just needed the puck.
It was a moment when it felt like the future was becoming reality. Even if it was still a charger that had to be plugged into the wall somewhere, it was signaling something bigger. It offered hope for the day when we would have homes and cars and offices where we could place a portable device on virtually any flat surface for changing. You’re in the kitchen making breakfast and your phone could be resting on nothing but the surface of the counter, charging. You could be driving to work, and your phone could be mounted to the dash, still at 100%. You could be in the office with your phone juicing up on your desk.
Sure, you could just position ordinary chargers all around those same spaces and be done with it, but the difference is not having to deal with plugging and unplugging your phone every time you want to check a text or an email. Or not having to worry about a co-worker stealing your iPhone cable at the office. It would simply be a matter of thoughtlessly placing your phone on a stationary object and going about your business.
And aside from the prospect of convenience, the idea of a dead phone being an exception more than the rule would cut out a constant source of stress in this modern world. The Pre’s inductive charger was the first step.
This wasn’t the first appearance of the technology. It had been a favorite trick of electric toothbrushes for years prior. But its inclusion in the Palm Pre was one of the first times that inductive charging was being used in a device that’s not only meaningful but deeply essential to our day-to-day lives.
And yet many of us have yet to experience inductive charging with our smartphones. What gives?
Fast forward to the present, and Nokia is announcing that its latest flagship phone, the Lumia 1020, won’t have the technology built into the device. After supporting inductive charging in its last generation of phones, including the Lumia 920 and 820, the handset maker removed this built-in functionality in the name of a thinner, lighter device.
And while numerous other phones and tablets support the technology theoretically, none of them is pushing it as a true industry standard. (Google equipped its new Nexus 7 tablet with inductive charging abilities but failed to mention a thing about it; teardown revealed the latent feature.) Almost always, it’s treated as a premium feature requiring costly accessories.
Despite this, Nokia says that it’s fully committed to the technology going forward, and insists that inductive charging is not only one of its most requested features but that the company’s optional wireless charging accessories—which include phone cases and charging pads—are selling very well.
Dropping the technology from Lumia may not be a complete rejection, but it’s certainly a step backwards for a nascent technology that had so much promise out of the gate.
The Wireless Power Consortium, responsible for the Qi wireless charging standard and corresponding charging mats, is also extremely optimistic and sees no cause for concern about the future status of its technology. WPC chairman Menno Treffers is quick to point out that there are over 200 devices that currently support the Qi standard, and every non-iPhone flagship smartphone incorporates the technology to some extent.
So why hasn’t inductive charging caught on? There are a number of tangible complaints that can be levied at the technology in its current form. The internal coils required to facilitate the charging process add thickness. Inductive charging also takes longer to charge a device than a wire, can generate a noticeable amount of heat, and wastes 30%-50% of the power that passes through its circuitry. And charging isn’t always as simple as dropping the phone on a charge pad; often it has to be arranged just so.
When it comes to the business side of inductive chargers, things look equally problematic. No smartphone maker includes inductive charging accessories with its phones at no added cost (but Samsung will sell you all the necessary parts for $90). When I asked Nokia exec Ignacio Riesgo about the decision not to bundle the accessories, he replied, "[Nokia is] trying to be sensitive to price points, and with smartphones, it’s important to reduce costs wherever possible." Then, in the same breath, he mentioned consumer demand for the technology and the retail benefits of that demand.
And when these technological and business problems collide, it affects the overall user experience. Unlike an electric toothbrush, which is used in one place for a few minutes a day, a smartphone is something constantly used by people in multiple locations. That requires multiple charging stations in the places where you use your device most. But if it takes too long to charge a device in a single spot, and the cost of multiple charging mats borders on financially prohibitive, the convenience factor is outweighed by a lack of real-world practicality.
WPC’s Treffers pins most the responsibility of improving the technology on the hardware and accessory makers, suggesting that they need to use better components to yield better results. But better components mean added cost. In the case of cost, Treffers argues product costs will drop as consumers become more aware of the technology. Because most of the major tech players have aligned themselves with the Qi standard, there will be no products with proprietary charging technology. As a result, companies like Samsung will be able to gouge customers only for so long.
But maybe it’s time to question the WPC’s sense of calm when it comes to the future of this technology. The WPC might be able sit back and let its plan organically come to fruition without resorting to aggressively persuading its partners. But the challenge isn’t convincing the tech partners to build this into gadgets; it’s to convince those who don’t make overtly techie products—furniture especially—to integrate the charging technology into their goods.
This is key, considering Apple exec Phil Schiller tossed out a stinging jab last year when he pointed out that any added convenience provided by wireless charging is an illusion if you still need a separate charging base that plugs into the wall.
And sadly, he’s right. Even when the size and cost of inductive charging components become afterthoughts for device makers, it will all be for naught if charge pads aren’t integrated into items we already have around the house.
Few non-tech companies have earnestly explored the ways in which inductive charging pads can be integrated into mass-market products. In the near future, it may take the help of mainstream tech companies to provide examples of how it can be built into unexpected products, like the base of a flat-screen TV in the living room, or an alarm clock in the bedroom, with the ultimate goal of being integrated into more household objects.
But even amidst this battle, cleverness-via-design has managed to prevail. Something as simple as Intel’s proposed idea, which imagines building an inductive charge pad into a laptop, so that your phone charges when resting on top, would give the uninitiated a tangible example of the convenience this technology can provide when done right, and why they might want this built into desks and counters and nightstands.
The advent of wireless charging is not a question of if but when. It will happen in some form or another. We’re all acquiring too many rechargeable gadgets for it not to make sense. But whether that means waiting for inductive charging to deliver on its promise over the next few years, or twiddling our thumbs for a couple of decades until a more advanced technology arrives (e.g., gadgets that can draw power from radio waves and microwaves hanging in the air) is the question that is yet to be answered. For the sake of convenience, let’s hope it’s the former.
[Image: Cords via Shutterstock]