Why Wireless Phone Charging Is Taking So Long to Arrive

For years now, we've been given promises of a cordless future where our phones charge wirelessly and we are no longer tethered to outlets. But when will that future actually arrive?

The wireless charging industry is incredibly complicated with a number of different players trying out different technologies ranging from inductive charging through mats that you can place your phone on, to uBeam's ultrasound technology that can reportedly power your phone just by entering a room. Here's the thing, though: there has yet to emerge one clear pathway to our cordless future.

Right now there are two major wireless charging standards in operation: the World Power Consortium's Qi and the AirFuel Alliance. Both use inductive charging, meaning that all you have to do is have your phone in proximity to the power source (often a mat), and it will automatically charge. But the two standards are not compatible. Starbucks (SBUX) has opted to roll out AirFuel charging pads in some of its stores, while Ikea sells furniture with WPC's Qi built in.

The two organizations are in discussions about a possible merger, according to John Perzow, vice president of marketing development for WPC. "A lot of members would like to see that happen," he said. "We're trying to make that happen."

But he admitted that there were still a number of obstacles, including that neither organization wants to cave entirely and give up on its own technology. But if these obstacles can be overcome, it could seriously move things forward.

"For us, we think it's the final cord that needs cutting," said Dan Bladen, the founder of Chargifi, a company which provides the software to enable wireless charging through both Qi and AirFuel. "Once this final cord is cut, there will be an inevitable rush to wireless charging as a whole."

Chargifi supports both Qi and AirFuel standards and offers a dongle for phones that don't have the functionality built in already. And it recently partnered with Intel (INTC) , which led a $2.7 million funding round for the startup. According to Bladen, Intel plans to do for wireless charging what it did for Wi-Fi, when it made it so consumers no longer needed to plug in to connect.

Intel has said that in the upcoming year it plans to bring to market new Skylake chips with wireless charging functionality already built in, which would give wireless charging another big boost forward

Chargifi's charging dongle receives power from the charging pad under the table.

At the same time, though, many devices, including the Apple  (AAPL) iPhone, are not even compatible with either the Qi or Airfuel standards. Samsung (SSNLF) finally added Qi compatibility to its newest flagship phones, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, which is a step forward. But until Apple and the rest of the device makers all add wireless charging functionality, we'll all need to buy extra cases or dongles to use the powermats from Qi and AirFuel.

Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS owns Apple in its portfolio.

That day could be coming soon though, with rumors of the next iPhone coming with some sort of wireless charging functionality built in. Plus the Apple Watch already has that functionality, so the rumors don't seem too far-fetched.

"It is highly likely that the next iPhone will be equipped with this technology, although it won't become clear until days before launch which standard (or even which proprietary technology) they might choose," said David Green, research manager for the power supplies & wireless power group at IHS Technology.

But talk to uBeam's founder Meredith Perry and she'll tell you all of this Qi and AirFuel business isn't really wireless charging. They still require the device to be in close proximity to a charging pad.

uBeam, by contrast, is working on a wireless charging technology that would power a phone as the consumer walks through a room. But that technology has yet to hit the market, and many doubt its feasibility and safety, saying that the amount of ultrasound needed to power a phone could potentially be harmful to humans.

A similar company called Ossia agrees that powermats aren't revolutionary enough, but it's working with radio frequency as opposed to ultrasound. That, says Ossia Chief Commercialization Officer Abid Hussain, is less dangerous. For now, though, Ossia can only power phones with a special sleeve or devices with a special battery that can interact with the Ossia charger.

Those involved with the Qi and AirFuel options aren't optimistic about charging via either ultrasound or radio frequency, however.

"There are far-field technologies -- the nickname is trickle charging," said Bladen. "If you imagine a leaky tap or faucet, it'll drip. It will charge your device, but it will do it slowly over a period of time."

Bladen imagines a future that blends the trickle charging with close-contact charging pads.

So when will that future happen?

For phones, wireless charging will be mainstream within four to five years, according to WPC's Perzow. For larger devices such as laptops or electric vehicles, it could take a little longer.

"The market has crossed the chasm," Perzow said. "It has now entered mainstream adoption. It's still in the early stage but past the early adopter phase. The train has left the station."

IHS predicts that the millionth wireless charger will be installed in a public space in 2016, but that forecast is limited to coupled wireless charging such as Qi and AirFuel charging pads.

"We do not expect mainstream product launches of uncoupled wireless-charging receivers; arguably those will not enter the market until 2017, at the earliest," IHS analyst Green said, referring to the technology from companies like uBeam and Ossia. "However, in 2016 we expect to see at least one major original equipment manufacturer sign development agreements within the uncoupled space."

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