So, what was the wireless charging arms race between Qi and PMA and why was it so important?
The underlying issue here is that just because all inductive wireless charging technology operates under the same physical principles, doesn’t mean that all wireless charging products are manufactured to co-ordinate, or even that they are made to the same standards of quality.
Bearing in mind that the main advantage of wireless charging is its increased convenience, this is a very inconvenient reality. In an ideal world all charging capabilities would be compatible so that you could buy any brand of charger you want to and still be able to use it with your phone.
Therefore, there is a clear need for universal charging standards so that your various wirelessly chargeable devices can co-operate.
Where Do Charging Standards Come From?
How they come about
Compatible technology standards don’t just happen by accident, they require a conglomerate of commercial companies setting aside personal differences to agree upon a standard that will benefit them all in the long run.
And that's not always easy in a capitalist market where everyone is (arguably) interested more in their own commercial success than that of other companies.
As a result, we have seen three major competing wireless charging market alliances emerge over the years. These alliances pooled their resources together to develop universal standards which all the member companies could build into their products. These standards then allowed interoperability between products with that same standard, making wireless charging way more commercially viable and instigating collaboration on a global scale.
These alliances began quite artificially but it is easy to see the market advantage they provided. Not only did it progress the development of wireless charging but commercial companies realised that by joining an alliance and adopting a standard, they could gain a potential market edge over their competitors who might have adopted a less popular one.
But despite these efforts, wireless charging was split between three different standards for a long time. How many years of potential progress have been lost, we might wonder, over the market's inability to come together early on and provide an agreed standard from the get go.
Nevertheless, with Apple’s move to join the Wireless Power Consortium the Qi standard now dominates with over 90% of all wireless mobile devices under Qi’s control.
This may have a huge impact on the ubiquity of wireless charging as public companies realise the improved practicality of providing charging hotspots in public places.
The Political Players
Despite Qi now being the potential endgame for commercial wireless charging, its important to look back at how we got here. The above diagram shows all the major wireless charging technologies that have emerged over the past 10 years. It also reveals that part of Qi’s success may be its ability to appear and behave like a unified brand, which makes it more appealing as a universal standard.
Initially we witnessed three alliances emerge: The Wireless Power Consortium (Qi), The Power Matters Alliance (PMA) and the Alliance for Wireless Power (Rezence).
Whilst the Power Matters Alliance specialised in inductive charging technology and the A4WP specialised in resonant technology, the WPC began to build both technologies into its standard after the 1.2 specification. By 2015 it also had the biggest membership of the three by a substantial margin. This led the Power Matters Alliance and the A4WP to merge in 2015, forming the Airfuel Alliance.
Here’s a deeper look into the two remaining alliances:
The Wireless Power Consortium
The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) is a multinational consortium based in New Jersey that was formed in 2008.
Not only is it the largest wireless charging technology alliance - containing over 600 individual companies - but its standard “Qi” (pronounced "chee") is the most popular on the market.
The consortium provides various levels of paid membership scheme for those companies interested in adopting Qi charging into their products.
This has created a hierarchy of companies which allows the consortium to operate much like a company itself. There is a board of 25 “steering companies” who are in charge of guiding the future of the Qi standard, these include BOSCH, Nokia, Apple, LG and Toshiba and their number is limited in order to keep the governance of the WPC simpler.
With 2957 Qi certified products on the market as of November 2018, it offers the most likely solution to the issue of wireless ubiquity, especially after Apple joined in 2017, who have since agreed to implement wireless charging capability into all their smartphones from the iPhone 8 onwards.
The Airfuel Alliance
What is now known as the Airfuel Alliance is the product of a merger between two previous competitors that occurred in January 2015:
- The Power Matters Alliance who championed an inductive technology called PMA.
- The Alliance for Wireless Power(A4WP) who championed the Rezence standard, a resonant technology.
The Airfuel Alliance consists of roughly 150 companies, with high profile members including: Bose, Sharp, Duracell, Panasonic and Starbucks.
The Airfuel specification currently champions 2 different technologies:
- Airfuel Resonant, formerly known as Rezence, allows charging over distances of up to 50mm, through materials such as wood, stone and even concrete and has the ability to charge multiple devices. It is used in Dell’s new 2 in 1 laptop and Chargifi’s “public infrastructure charging”.
- Airfuel Inductiveis equivalent to PMA and is used most notably in Starbucks’ hotspots.
- Airfuel RF, their newest technology, provides a consistent low power charge across distances of up to a meter and is used in Humavox wireless headphones, but is also a technology being developed by Energous corporation.
A Ceasefire… Sort of
As of January 2018, Powermat officially conceded defeat in the war for inductive charging standard superiority and joined the Wireless Power Consortium.
Powermat CEO Elad Dubzinski stated that:
"Qi has become the dominant wireless charging standard on the market and the recently launched Apple iPhone lineup is evidence of this success.”
Since this announcement Airfuel no longer lists Airfuel Inductive as a technology on their website, signifying their withdrawal from the inductive standards war and cementing Qi’s position as the universal inductive standard.
As a result the WPC is growing at a quicker rate than ever before and is now firmly in the driving seat of commercial wireless charging.
Still, don’t completely count out the Airfuel Alliance. They have an ace up their sleeve, or two in fact, Resonant and RF technologies.
While the battle over inductive charging may be over, the war for a dominant charging technology is far from over as many predict a shift from a contest between inductive charging standards, to one between near-field charging (i.e. inductive) and far-field charging (such as Resonant or RF).
The Airfuel Alliance are looking to propel the development of charging over greater distances and satiate consumers’ desire for true wireless charging without visible wires. Having said that, no company has yet shown evidence of being able to deliver on this far-field promise, at least, not for products as big as smartphones.
What This Means For Wireless Charging
Ultimately though, this ceasefire is good news for wireless charging. So far, the battle of market alliances has created an unhealthy contest which put more focus on generating market support than on producing the highest spec technology.
Now that Qi is the universal inductive standard, it can finally begin to forge ahead and focus purely on its development as a technology. Meanwhile, the Airfuel Alliance can continue to plot in secret until the day it finally produces a technology practical enough to oust Qi.
However, Qi still has a lot on its hands. It needs to find a way to set itself apart from wired charging, which still remains the go-to charging method for a large number of smartphone users. We still have a while to go yet before inductive charging is considered the norm and wired charging can be relegated to ancient history.
The battle may be over, but the war has only just begun.
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