Wireless charging standards, Qi, Powermat, A4WP, what does it all mean and who will prevail?
We do not know how many people are on the enthusiast bandwagon for wireless charging. Given the rather limited availability on many products, and the fact there is a heated battle between two major standards, consumers are sort of caught in the middle, and it is even more complicated when carriers choose sides too.
So what is the deal with these standards? There are three “big” ones with backing from large technology titans, Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), Power Matters Alliance (PMA), and the most well-known Wireless Power Consortium (Qi).
The Alliance for Wireless Power uses a transfer technology called Rezence, based on magnetic resonance, which is basically the opposite of magnetic induction charging used by the competitors. Rezence purports itself to be the “next generation” of wireless charging technology. The magnetic resonance is geared to enable multiple-device charging, better charging range through layers (as in, through materials like books, clothing), to distances ranging a few feet, and operation in the presence of other metallic objects in what A4WP calls “real world” situations (kitchen appliances, keys, etc.).
Rezence looks to leverage existing short-range communication, particularly Bluetooth 4.0 in pursuit of “smart charging zones” and minimizing manufacturing hardware requirements. As it is right now, A4WP is really a specification, not a standard, as a standards organization has not recognized A4WP for regional acceptance.
Out of the three, A4WP is the underdog, despite having membership from companies like Qualcomm, MediaTek, Intel, LG, HTC, Samsung, and Deutsche Telekom, to name a few out of a list of roughly 100 companies. The applications that A4WP are more commercial in nature where products are then consumerized for use. It is highly unlikely we will see any smartphone with wireless charging that uses this specification. That would explain why A4WP has agreed to merge its charging specification with Power Matters Alliance.
Power Matters Alliance
The corporate membership in PMA is a little bigger than A4WP, and the solutions are more consumer oriented. Notably, AT&T is an industry member of PMA. The result for consumers, at least in the US, has been that devices that would otherwise have a competing wireless charging standard enabled, have had it removed in AT&T’s case. The carrier has then providing wireless charging cases at an extra cost.
As it is right now, we are only aware of two devices in the US market that natively support PMA wireless charging, the Kyocera Hydro VIBE and the Hydro Icon, both mid-range Android devices that also happen to be water resistant.
Where PMA is gaining ground is in a “pull strategy,” where companies are building in support for the standard with the aim of creating a de-facto consumer demand. This is being pursued through measures similar to what Starbucks is doing. DuPont will be doing something similar for surface products it makes for the home (kitchen counters, etc).
So, while it could be argued that PMA is to wireless charging what Betamax and HD-DVD were to VHS video tapes and Blu-Ray, there is enough muscle behind PMA to continue creating a disturbance in the force that is Qi.
Meet the 800 pound gorilla of wireless charging, Qi. Backed by more than 200 industry members, including Verizon, Nokia, and LG, Qi is the standard that so far has the widest global distribution and penetration, from charging plates to automotive cradles.
From an industry perspective, Qi is not any less capable than PMA from a “connected world” standpoint. However, the consortium is going tit-for-tat with PMA when it comes to pushing infrastructure initiatives. Qi also has strong end-user backing.
Interestingly, Powermat, one of the earliest wireless charging products, was part of the Wireless Power Consortium, and was part of the standardization of the Qi format. Unfortunately, there was a difference of opinion over the adoption rate of wireless charging, so Powermat left the WPC and started the Power Matters Alliance, and here we are with what we have.
What is the difference?
When it comes to Qi and PMA, they both use inductive charging, but the differences are that Qi’s wavelength is 100-205kHz and PMA’s is 277-357kHz. Otherwise, the method itself is the same. The rest of the differences have to do with the driving forces behind each standard.
Another factor is that PMA is seen as having an edge when it comes to the “intelligence” in creating a mesh of wireless charging points. Then, merchants are able to manage how, and who, can use wireless charging, as well as develop applications that may be used to help find places to charge devices.
Who is going to win this?
Unlike the other standards battles we have seen unfold in the past, Betamax losing to VHS, HD-DVD losing to Blu-Ray, and HomeRF losing to Wi-Fi, the outcome in this drama is not certain. Given the lead and backing that the Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi has, it seems easy to give them the edge. However, PMA does not have an empty bench, and just as Starbucks gave Wi-Fi a visible edge years ago, the association sees the coffee shop’s adoption of its standard as a similar development. Moreover, PMA and A4WP agreeing to merge specifications lends a more collaborative effort which could generate more momentum down the road.
Who loses in all this?
In the near term, it will be the consumer that gets caught in the crossfire. However, major manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, and LG, are members of all the industry groups. Whether that is to hedge bets, or serve all the consumers is anyone’s guess, but both hold weight.
From a smartphone or tablet perspective, it can certainly be argued that carrier involvement does not help consumers or manufacturers. AT&T supports PMA, Verizon is backing Qi, as is Nokia. So devices being made by Nokia have to be altered specifically for AT&T, leaving users with less attractive options if they want to use wireless charging.
Kyocera’s support of PMA does not mean anything in the current environment, as the manufacturer’s market share does not register in the United States. Will PMA’s strategy work? That remains to be seen. If we see manufacturers start making gear across both standards, then that would be a feather in PMA’s cap. How such a development impact Qi is too difficult to speculate on.
It seems fairly apparent that we are going to be wireless well beyond communications in the foreseeable future. The question remains to what extent we, as consumers, will embrace it. Do you see your future as totally cable free?