Katherine Boehret

It’s Hard to Cut the Charging Cords

What if there was a product that made it easy to charge all your household mobile devices and it used just a single cord to do it?

Charging pads are designed to do just that. The WildCharge Pad from PureEnergy Solutions Inc., one of the first charging pads, seemed revolutionary when it came out three years ago. It’s a small, thin pad covered in panels that conduct electricity. It plugs into the wall, and devices can be casually dropped onto it so they can start juicing up.

Yet, here we are still fumbling around to find the right charging cord to plug into our phones, iPads, digital cameras and portable music players. This week, I decided to investigate why charging pads haven’t caught on with consumers.

One reason is that people may not want to buy a charging accessory when gadgets come with their own cords. Also, for devices to work with these charging surfaces, they must have special backs or cases that correspond with the pad. These can change the look of a device, making them bulky.

However, manufacturers of smart phones and other gadgets are starting to incorporate the technology behind charging pads at the design level so they aren’t so obtuse. Palm Inc., now a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard, designed a $20 (after instant rebate) accessory called the Touchstone that works as a magnetic charging dock for its Pre smart phones. A special backing still must be swapped out for the Pre’s regular back, but this looks just like the phone’s regular backing. And last week, when H-P unveiled its TouchPad tablet, due out this summer, the company confirmed this device would also work with a Touchstone charger.

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Energizer’s Inductive Charger

But why isn’t there one charging pad that works with several different gadgets and doesn’t require an unattractive sleeve? Of the different charging technologies, there isn’t one that has gained a toehold.

A group called the Wireless Power Consortium—which includes a host of different companies like smart-phone makers, wireless carriers and TV makers—created what it intends to be an international standard for interoperable wireless charging, called Qi (pronounced “chee”). The WPC hopes manufacturers will eventually make devices that are Qi compliant so they all work with the same charging pad and don’t require a sleeve, since the technology would be built in. Products using this charging standard would have a Qi logo on their packaging. Compared with the current situation of using different chargers for each device, Qi sounds heavenly.

Though the WPC includes members like Samsung, LG Electronics, Verizon Wireless and Motorola, none of the companies has introduced a Qi-compliant product. When I asked a Motorola spokeswoman if it had plans to use the Qi standard in its products, she would only say that the company is evaluating the technology for future devices. Likewise for BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion Ltd., a WPC member. A spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on future product plans.

In September, another trade group, the Consumer Electronics Association, created a panel to sort through various opinions on wireless power technical standards. The sole aim of the group is to collect and share information with manufacturers. This group is examining five issues that include: nomenclature; safety; radio-frequency emissions and efficiency; and standby measurement. A CEA spokeswoman said the panel and the WPC share many of the same members and that the panel plans to share information on a charging standard.

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Duracell’s myGrid charging pad, which uses the conductive charging technology.

There are two types of charging technology and it isn’t clear yet which one will become the standard. The Qi standard involves a technology called inductive charging, while other companies, like PureEnergy Solutions, use a conductive charging technology.

One big difference is that inductive chargers don’t require metal-on-metal connections to charge a device like conductive chargers do. This means inductive charging will work through lots of different materials, including wood, plastic or leather. This could allow pads to be built into different surfaces, such as airplane trays and office furniture. Late last year, the first Qi-enabled wireless charging station was installed at Windsor International Airport in Ontario.

One product that is Qi compliant is Energizer’s $89 Inductive Charger (http://energizer.com/inductive), but this still requires sleeves for devices. The sleeves cost $35 each and are available for BlackBerrys, the iPhone 3G or 3GS and iPhone 4. Late this summer, Energizer will introduce a universal adapter with micro- and mini-USB compatibility.

Powermat USA’s $60 Wireless Charging System for the iPhone 4 (powermat.com) uses a slightly different technology that requires devices to rest on charging pads in specific positions.

On the conductive front, PureEnergy Solutions has licensed its WildCharge Technology to other companies. All licensees feature a WildCharge Mark of Interoperability on their products so consumers know which products are compatible with the WildCharge charging pad.

Duracell uses this technology in its MyGrid line of products (http://3.ly/A7Yh), including the $85 iPhone Starter Kit and a $90 cellphone starter kit. RadioShack will use WildCharge Technology in its $50 Enercell Charging Pad (http://3.ly/6gcY), which will be available in June, and skins for devices that charge on these pads will cost about $30 each.

In the future, hopefully, one of these committees will figure out which technology is best to establish one standard that saves people from using a rat’s nest of power cords.

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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