The Coming War Over Wireless Charging

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India Knicks season-ticket holders flocking to Madison Square Garden this year will participate in a corporate giveaway that will be closely watched far beyond the NBA. Some 5,000 Knicks fans will get specially designed smartphone cases that will allow them to charge their iPhones wirelessly from 550 charging spots in the arena’s corporate suites and eighth-floor viewing area. Procter & Gamble (PG) and other companies underwriting the promotion hope it helps usher in an era in which people’s mobile devices become cord-free appendages.

Although the consumer demand is potentially huge, wireless charging has been slow to take off. There are currently fewer than 10 million devices in circulation in the U.S. able to charge wirelessly, mostly phones and accessories, according to researcher IHS (IHS). But as the technology has improved, that’s changing. Global shipments of wirelessly charged devices are projected to rise from 5 million units this year to nearly 100 million by 2015, according to IHS.

Illustration by Brown Bird Design

 

Mobile-device makers will sell wireless charging stations along with their phones. They and other consumer products companies such as Duracell Powermat (a joint venture between Procter & Gamble and wireless charging technology provider Powermat) also will offer stations in cell carriers’ stores and through other retailers. Makers of phone accessories plan to cash in as well, while tech companies such as Intel hope to profit by providing their charging systems to others. And suppliers of phone components may earn extra revenue from handset manufacturers and from sales of charging stations to automakers and other companies, says Eric Giler, chief executive officer of WiTricity, which licenses its wireless charging technology to chipmaker MediaTek (2454). Meanwhile, Madison Square Garden, Starbucks (SBUX), Delta Air Lines (DAL) Sky Clubs, and other venues are starting to embed charging stations into tables and bars as a service for their customers and for the cachet of providing a cutting-edge technology.

Wireless charging-enabled phones contain a coil that receives electricity via a magnetic field emitted by a similar coil embedded in a charging surface located a fraction of an inch to a few feet away. The charging time is comparable to wired connections. Problem is, there isn’t yet a common standard, so enabled phones won’t work with every charging surface. “This is not going to endear this technology to anybody,” says William Stofega, program director at researcher IDC. “It just creates a headache.”

Industry giants from Google (GOOG) to Samsung Electronics are trying to push their own technology into the mainstream. Without one accepted standard, though, companies run the risk of investing in products that may be obsolete in a couple of years. “You can imagine the internal discussions we’ve had,” says Kevin Berger, a manager at Delta Air Lines, which is market-testing one technology at Sky Club lounges in New York. “We call it the Betamax/VHS discussion.” Still, “if the final standard ends up being compatible with what we’ve already done, we’re way ahead of the game,” Berger says.

Duracell Powermat paid the hardware costs for the Delta and Madison Square Garden wireless charging systems. “We are making investments in marketing and retail infrastructure at the level of hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Ron Rabinowitz, CEO of Duracell Powermat. “Nobody is as committed.” The joint venture is part of the Power Matters Alliance, which supports a format known as PMA. Google, AT&T (T), and Starbucks joined the alliance in late October. Duracell Powermat has also launched an ad campaign in New York featuring Jay-Z and is making wireless charging cases and surfaces available in stores such as Best Buy (BBY) and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) in certain markets.

 

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