Wireless charging technology goes back a long, long way—all the way back to 1891, when Nicola Tesla successfully transferred power wirelessly. More than 100 years later, the tech still remains a non-starter.
Samsung wants to change all that. A post by its top engineer for IT and mobile, Seho Park, suggests that the company’s upcoming Galaxy S6 may offer built-in support for the technology, which would be a first for the company.
Samsung, of course, has dabbled in wireless charging before. Typically, those efforts required accessories like swappable backplates and charge mats. Park writes that his company’s first commercial wireless charging mat launched in the U.S. in 2011 as the Droid Charge. Since then, the tech giant has continued to look for ways to squeeze all that tech into the phone itself.
Shoot Out At The Wireless Corral
Back in 2009, when Palm still had a horse in the mobile race, its Pre phone line and its wireless Touchstone charging dock grabbed the public’s attention. Now Palm is dead in the water—though not done for quite yet—and the state of wireless charging has come to resemble a Mexican standoff. Three major, but incompatible, standards have been jockeying for the top spot.
All three essentially do the same thing: They use electromagnetic fields to charge a battery from a (usually short) distance, allowing you to ditch the charging cable. None have emerged victorious, although consumers have clearly been the losers.
According to Park, Samsung—which belongs to all three organizations—has had enough. It’s been working on integrated components that can work with all the wireless-charging standards. Park writes:
We also discovered new ways to merge and combine components in a more efficient way, which allowed our technology to generate more power and take up less space…. We also focused on finding new ways to make the components themselves smaller and thinner.
If that effort works, one day you might toss a Samsung device on a charging mat and it would just charge, without you giving a moment’s thought as to whether your phone works with that particular brand of mat (or transmitter table or charging bowl).
It is, of course, possible that the warring standards might have eventually gotten their act together on their own. Last year, two of them joined forces, agreeing to support each other’s technology. One of those groups also partnered with Starbucks, whose cafés now feature charging tables and bars.
Promising steps. Too bad they still leave out the the third, and arguably most popular, wireless-charging standard, known as Qi. (It’s a lot like being the biggest ant in the hill.) Currently, Qi technology is available in hundreds of consumer products, and if you hunt for them, you can find charging locations at a few dozen McDonald’s joints in Europe.
Instead of waiting for a miracle to occur, Samsung looks ready to take matters into its own hands.
Smartphones Are Just The Start
The timing of Park’s meditation on wireless charging is no coincidence. He strongly implies the new Galaxy phone will have built-in support, but he stops short of promising that—perhaps to preserve “the wow factor” for Samsung’s Unpacked media event in Barcelona in a couple of weeks.
Portable power and charging has been a vexing matter for the whole mobile industry, with players like Motorola, Apple and Samsung (of course) offering fast-charging technology to take some of the irritation out of juicing up. If the cable finally goes away and charging installations become more publicly available, it could go a long way toward easing the long wait for bigger and better batteries.
Park explains that Samsung has been working on the wire-free charging conundrum for the last five years. Apparently, the company figures the time is ripe now to stuff wireless charging directly into its phones, to drive adoption of the technology—and, of course, its own devices.
Those efforts could have even greater significance beyond phones.
In addition to IT companies, leading brands from a wide range of industries, such as consumer electronics, semiconductors, mobile services, automotive, furniture, software and others have joined the effort and are working closely together.
Samsung, of course, has its fingers in several of those pies—including smartwatches and fitness bands, home theater equipment and kitchen appliances. With its SmartThings acquisition last year, it has a stake in smart homes and the broader movement dubbed the “Internet of Things.”
The Samsung global conglomerate has its hand in even more than that, from hospital-grade medical equipment to industrial machines, and many of the gadgets that hook into them. Anything not nailed down by a power cable could get a boost from streamlined charging technology.
But Phones Are a Crucial Start For Samsung
Support for the various industries could be Samsung’s long game. For now, however, its focus is on phones, where it has been struggling recently.
For mobile consumers to flock to wireless charging, the process needs to be fast and convenient. Given that, there’s one curious tidbit in Park’s post:
Two or three years ago, wireless charging was only twenty to thirty percent as efficient as wired charging. But since then, we have been able to double the charging speed.
It’s tough to tell if Park is referring to Samsung’s work or wireless charging as a whole. If it’s the latter, then Daniel Schreiber, president of Powermat Technologies, might take some exception to this. He told me last November, when his group’s Starbucks initiative launched, that those wireless charging speeds rival cabled connections. I didn’t clock the action when I tried it, but at the time, the charging seemed pretty speedy.
If Park is talking about Samsung’s development, then the tech—slow as it seems to be—still has a ways to go. Because by my math, if the cable-free version is 30% as efficient as traditional charging, and the company can achieve twice that speed, it’s still much slower than physically plugging in.
So it may be a bit too early for Galaxy customers to completely ditch the cord. Samsung’s wire-free tech could be somewhat handy, since it may come built into those Galaxy S6 phones. But it might not be the shot of power needed to really juice up Samsung’s mobile business.
Palm Pre/Touchstone photo by PatrickMoorhead; Starbucks photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite