January 8th, 2009. On this day, in the midst of the usual noise that surrounds the year’s most extravagant electronics show, Palm debuted the Pre. Outside of its radical software, the most notable hardware feature was one that truly was ahead of its time… years ahead, in fact. The phone supported wireless charging, with the Touchstone charger ushering in the idea well before most anyone else was even thinking about it.
Half a decade has passed, and we’re still waiting for wireless charging to matter.
It’s baffling, really. Wireless charging is, in many ways, the holy grail of consumer electronics. In a world where it’s possible to send HD video signals, surround sound, and terabytes of data across the air, the only remaining wire to be cut is the one leading to the power socket. Even the most basic electronics user can understand the potential benefits, and I’d wager that almost no one would confess to preferring a charger with wires over the notion of one without.
So, why are we still waiting for the wireless charger to revolutionize our lives? Plenty of research has been done in the five years that have passed since the Touchstone’s introduction. In fact, a number of phones have shipped since with support for tether-free charging. LG’s Nexus 4 and Nokia’s flagship Lumia line both had support out of the factory, with loads of others (including the Galaxy S 4) gaining support via third-party backplates. A handful of alliances have formed as well, with the Wireless Power Consortium and the Alliance for Wireless Power both angling to make consumers more aware of wireless charging benefits.
Early on, I pinned the blame on the outside world, but I’m not so sure that’s still the issue. Just this week, I witnessed dozens upon dozens of Duracell Powermat charging pads installed in Delta’s JFK Sky Club. I’m no statistician, but I’d surmise that around 0.00 percent of them were being used.
I’ve also wondered if it’s just a localized phenomenon. After all, NFC and QR codes took off far more rapidly in Asia than they have in the United States, but wireless charging hasn’t found a foothold anywhere.
The core issue, so far as I can tell, is convenience. To date, every wireless charging solution for a phone or tablet requires a specific pad on the other end… which, incidentally, has to be plugged into an AC outlet. In a way, “wireless charging” is a misnomer. Thus far, solutions have simply repositioned the cable leading to the AC outlet instead of outright replacing it.
If I had to guess, I’d say that wireless charging won’t take off until we figure out a way to legitimately emanate power through thin air. Just as Wi-Fi signals follow a device around within a respectable range, the masses aren’t going to adopt wireless power until it operates similarly.
I recognize that the science behind such a construct is tremendously complex, but it’s really the only way. We’ll never convince every table maker, every surface builder, and every fabric producer to weave inductive transponders into their raw materials, but I’m hoping that startups such as uBeam can figure out a way to pull raw energy from the ether and push it into all of my devices.
For this thing to go mainstream, it’s over the air or bust.