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Did the future of wireless charging get decided by a coffee cup?

Did the future of wireless charging get decided by a coffee cup?

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Starbucks Android app 1
Starbucks Android app 1

In 2001, Wi-Fi wasn't a sure thing. Two different standards, HomeRF and Wi-Fi, were competing to be the dominant wireless networking technology. But though HomeRF had a host of supporters and its proponents argued that the technology wasn't as susceptible to interference, today mentioning the name would probably buy you a blank stare. One reason for that is the Apple iBook, the first of many laptops to integrate Wi-Fi. The other is Starbucks, which rolled out Wi-Fi on a vast scale to serve those laptops starting in 2002.

"Standards are ultimately set in a coffee shop, not in a conference room," says Daniel Schreiber, president of Powermat. He's telling The Verge about HomeRF because he believes that history is about to repeat itself. Schreiber is on the board of the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), a standards group for wireless charging — "Standards are ultimately set in a coffee shop, not a conference room."the ability to power everything from a smartphone to an automobile without a plug — and he believes his group will prevail against the competing Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) thanks to the help of that very same Starbucks.

Though the WPC is responsible for the Qi standard that appears in several recent high-end phones, it's the PMA that appears to be winning over the coffee shop. Starbucks has not only begun trialing the technology in Boston stores, it recently took a seat on the PMA board. "The next anticipated step is indeed that the rollout will be expanded significantly in the coming months," Schreiber told us. PowerKiss (which will supply 1,000 McDonalds stores in Europe) defected from the WPC to the PMA in March. And on Wednesday, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf did the same, with plans to roll out PMA-approved wireless charging internationally after a trial this quarter in "dozens" of California stores.

But retail isn't the only component that appears to be attracted to the PMA. WiTricity, an MIT spinoff that's been developing a version of wireless charging that can work over a distance, is also announcing that it's joining the Power Matters Alliance today. While both Qi and Powermat typically use inductive charging, where a phone typically has to be placed directly against a charging pad and in a particular orientation, WiTricity has demoed resonant charging, which uses tuned electromagnetic resonators to do the same thing even at a short distance from the charging station. At a minimum, it means that devices don't have to be perfectly placed to charge. With enough power behind it, though, and a large enough coil, you could power a device hanging in the air, or charge multiple devices at the same time from a single source of power.

Though WiTricity said its solution was 18 months away back in 2009, the company's CEO Eric Giler told us that it's actually been ready for some time... only manufacturers weren't interested in such an investment without a common standard they could rally behind. "Technically, it's ready now ... practically, it needs the standard."

According to Giler, WiTricity actually approached the Wireless Power Consortium about a partnership, but the WPC shot down the idea. The company remained on the fence for some time, but when AT&T took a seat on the PMA board, that convinced WiTricity to join the Power Matters Alliance.

Allegiances are fickle, and wireless power is still young

Though it definitely feels like the PMA could be that standard, with backing from AT&T, Starbucks, and Google snowballing into more and more support, it's worth noting that none of the companies involved are necessarily exclusive to any one standards body. Some — such as Samsung — are actively playing the field. PMA board member Powermat itself used to be a member of both the WPC and another upstart, the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), which is working on resonant charging as well. None of the existing trials are nearly as aggressive as Starbucks' original Wi-Fi rollout back in 2002, and it's still not certain that wireless charging is here to stay at all. If or when the world agrees that it's the way to go, the key partners might defect once more. The Power Matters Alliance might have the coffee cups on its side for now, but is that a definite win? Power Matters Alliance might not yet be the Wi-Fi that defeated HomeRF, but it's certainly trying to get there.