First world problems

Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to
Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to

As we become more and more dependent on tech, keeping it powered becomes an increasing issue. I attend a lot of conferences, and masses of people on the hunt for a plug has become a common sight. Co-workers sit on the floor by electrical sockets, guarding their precious devices while they charge.

Talk about a major tech fail! That's probably why newer phones are now beginning to incorporate various forms of wireless charging, and places like Starbucks are embedding charging pads in their tables.

Wireless charging has its own challenges, of course. Also known as inductive charging, it uses an electromagnetic field to transfer energy between the source and destination. It allows users to simply lay an enabled device on a pad and charge it, with no wires or plugs involved.

It's not new technology. It's been used in things like electric toothbrushes for decades. And that's good – and bad. There were four competing standards in play, each with its own organization and partners, although that number has shrunk by one as the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) have agreed to merge into a yet-unnamed body sometime this year, with the goal of building a global wireless charging ecosystem based on inductive and resonant based wireless charging. Its members (68 from PMA and 151 from A4WP, with some overlap) will include Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, Broadcom, Microsoft, Motorola, Lenovo, LG, Powermat and others. The Cota system, developed by Ossia Inc., uses different technology that can charge devices up to 30 feet away, sending energy over a channel in the familiar 802.11b WiFi spectrum that’s only used in Japan, so it that doesn’t interfere with wireless data here, and it doesn’t need a special licence. Cota is supported by Intel Capital.

The fourth standard, Qi (pronounced chee) is supported by the Wireless Power Consortium, which includes 218 members such as BlackBerry, Nokia, Microsoft, Motorola, ASUStek, Panasonic, Samsung, and many others. It claims over 850 supported devices.

As you'll notice, there's considerable overlap in membership among the organizations, as the battle to become the de-facto standard for wireless charging continues. Despite being the smaller group, A4WP/PMA scored a major coup in recruiting Starbucks as a partner and installing its charging pads in its locations.

Aside from dueling standards, there are also technical challenges hindering the growth of wireless charging. It is slower than plugging in, and is less efficient; there's power lost in the transfer. That's something the various manufacturers have been working on, and they're undeniably making progress.

That progress leads to other problems, though. As wireless charging becomes pervasive, people are going to become accustomed to dropping their devices onto the charging pads when they stop for a coffee or a snack, or wherever else the pads are available. They have to; many mobile devices can't stagger through even half a day of use without the battery running down, and people have become so dependent on their devices that they can't afford a dead battery. Battery technology just hasn't kept up with needs.

That in itself is bad enough, but when you add people to the mix, people who are rushed or absent-minded, you'll get a lot of devices left sitting on their charging pads while their owners leave empty-handed. And then, of course, they panic, and rush back hoping that some larcenous soul hasn't made off with their precious – assuming they can remember where they last put it down.

So, aside from tethering our devices as we do children's mittens, what can we do?

There's technology being developed to solve that problem too. It's similar to the tech we've used for years to keep us from losing car keys – small attachments to the devices that tell us where they are. The key finders, however, usually rely on an app on a phone – and the phone itself is what we're trying not to lose. The device that is potentially of most use is a gadget that will prevent people from losing their phones in the first place. And yes, there are those too.

One of the newest on the market is a Canadian product called mydaigo. The concept is simple. You get a small piece that you stick onto whatever you don't want to lose, be it a phone, a briefcase, a power tool on a job site, or even a puppy (well, stick it on the pooch's collar). The other component you keep with you. The two are mated, so if you and whatever you're protecting are separated by a configurable distance, the fob in your possession starts beeping. The manufacturer says that the transmitter and receiver will go at least six months between battery changes (they use coin cells; one for the transmitter, and two for the fob).

The system is completely self-contained. The transmitter can either be stuck onto something with its adhesive pad, or attached using the included key ring. The receiver is the size of the fob that remotely opens your car doors, so also attaches neatly to a key ring.

While it's not exactly mittens on a string foolproof, it at least lets people know if they forget to grab their phones off the charging pads when they head back to the office clutching that caramel macchatio.