Wireless charging will never take off if it remains optional

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It may not happen quite like clockwork, but you sure can bet that every few months, something’s going to happen to get wireless charging back on the minds of smartphone fans. Most recently I saw this happening with a pair of news stories, highlighting forthcoming efforts from both Sony and Samsung to really take the technology to the next level.

Sony’s game plan combines wireless charging with speed, supposedly managing to not only operate wirelessly like today’s Qi chargers, but pack enough punch to fully charge a phone in just a single hour. In Samsung’s corner, we heard about rumors of a system that could greatly increase the effective range of wireless chargers, no longer requiring careful alignment on a charging mat, and being able to power the phone even with obstacles between the handset and charger.

Either way: cool, cool, cool. But I’m worried that even advancements like these might not necessarily be enough to bring wireless charging to mainstream smartphone users.

The stumbling block is one that some manufacturers have dealt with better than others, but it’s really an industry-wide problem. I also can’t say with any certainty that this future tech from either Sony or Samsung would necessarily fall to the same trap, but I’m worried. What’s the big issue? Too many manufacturers are failing to make wireless charging a built-in feature.

Nexus 4 Charging OrbMake no mistake about it: for wireless charging to ever catch-on in a meaningful way, it’s going to have to be an intrinsic part of phone hardware. Bluetooth didn’t become as popular as it is because users needed to plug-in SDIO or CF-based Bluetooth adapters back in the Windows Mobile days – it succeeded because the support came built right in to phones, just waiting for users to take advantage of it.

We’re seeing shades of the same thing with NFC now. There’s still a long way for NFC to come, but where it is succeeding, it’s doing so because it’s convenient. If you’ve got one of the few Androids that haven’t seen their ability to use Google Wallet spitefully crippled, all you need to get started making wireless payments is to download and fire up the app. If you want to share a file with Android Beam, you just tap phones – no accessories needed.

You know where that isn’t happening? Over on iOS. If you want to do anything NFC-related there, you need a third-party case for your iPhone that includes its own NFC hardware. I recently told you how the Isis mobile payment system is beginning its nationwide push, and there are plans for iOS support via just such an add-on in the future. I already desire Isis to fail because of all the shady backroom dealings and efforts to kill Google Wallet, but this is just the icing on the cake: there is no way a preponderance of iPhone users go out and buy a new case just to take advantage of a feature they’ve so far gone happy without.

htc-dna-wireless-chargingTruth be told, removing the need for add-on wireless charging cases, batteries, or backplates is only part of the story here. It goes hand-in-hand with my belief that manufacturers need to stop half-assing it with wireless charging protocol support: we need to settle on a singular standard.

Now, this is made difficult by companies looking to think outside the box and expand on the tech we already have by augmenting it with new capabilities (like that Samsung and Sony stuff) – there’s no reason standards should block the way of progress – but I’m talking about the ongoing argument over current-gen standards.

Let me make this real simple for you, OEMs: Qi won. Qi and the Wireless Power Consortium behind it.

That’s all we want, is compatibility with the Qi chargers we already own. I don’t know what to tell you, Power Matters Alliance, but you’ve already lost, and stubborn efforts to pretend you haven’t are only going to hurt both your members and the state of wireless charging as a whole.

Now, is it still going to be tricky to get people to buy that first wireless charging mat? Sure. It’s hard to sell people on new technologies, especially when they’ve spent their whole life plugging things in to be charged and are comfortable with what “just works.”

qi-wireless-chargeBut after that first speedbump is passed, if manufacturers would make wireless charging a built-in feature, everything really is going to “just work” from then on out. That’s exactly how it needs to happen: consumers hate having to pay too much attention to technical stuff like charger compatibility, and if they have to go out shopping for a new add-on to their phone – not to mention for a charger itself – each time they upgrade their handset… well, that’s basically where we are now, and look how popular wireless charging is.

I’m not going to go so far as to demand that manufacturers need to bundle wireless chargers in with phones themselves, like they do with micro USB AC adapters, but… well, maybe they should. You ever tear down an inductive charger? The copper coil is probably the most expensive part in there. We’re talking dollars worth of components, not tens of dollars. Stop putting $30 price tags on what should be $5 chargers, or just give them away.

Really, though, I could live with us still having to buy our own charging mat – once, that is. The key to success is still the phone-end of the equation, and stopping the need for extra purchases to get wireless charging working there.

Manufacturers, stop treating wireless charging like an afterthought if you have even the most remote intention of making it a selling point for your phones. Eventually, the buying public will respond, but continuing to confuse us with half-measures of support is only going to end up delaying that ultimate acceptance, or keeping it from ever being achieved.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!