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Qualcomm poised to zap wireless charging rival into dust

WiPower and Qi in battle for the batteries

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MWC 2012 Qualcomm is on the verge of licensing its wireless charging tech WiPower to a big-name brand, which could be enough to unplug rival standard Qi.

Despite general agreement that topping up batteries wire-free desperately needs a single standard, and the fact that companies such as Energiser and Philips are already making Qi-compliant products, Qualcomm reckons its deal will dwarf the 48 Qi-approved devices. It says that only WiPower has the capabilities needed to make wireless charging the only form of charging.

The concept of wireless charging is pretty simple - a coil of wire induces current in another coil placed nearby, and that current is used to charge the battery - but the implementation is rather more complicated.

Electric toothbrushes have been using this system for decades, but generally slot the second coil around the first (by placing the brush on some sort of locating peg) to improve efficiency at the cost of simplicity. Both WiPower and Qi can charge devices placed onto or directly above a mat, and both can charge multiple devices as long as those devices have the appropriate (but incompatible) coils embedded.

Qi relies on RFID-like tagging to identify devices and deliver the correct amount of power, while WiPower can do that in the same 6.78MHz band that is delivering the juice. Qualcomm's approach is simpler, but when pushed it admitted that its consumer-brand partner would like to have a thicker data channel included anyway (so a phone could, for example, deliver video to the TV on which it was placed, and from which it was charging) so that's a bit of a moot point.

Instead, Qualcomm assures us, the killer advantage of WiPower is its ability to focus power delivery up to 45mm from the mat, whereas Qi loses efficiency with distance. Qualcomm reckons this is great for devices that constantly sip at power rather than taking on a full charge at a time.

Wireless charging certainly needs a killer application. The widespread adoption of micro-USB has already simplified things enormously when it comes to charging, and few people will spend near on a hundred quid for the joy of placing their phone on a special mat instead, not to mention having to retrofit a special case, cover or battery as almost no devices come with either technology built in.

But Qualcomm reckons that by focusing the power delivery it can prevent the user having to think about charging at all: a WiPower pad in a car door could charge the phone in your pocket; one built into the coffee table could charge a tablet while it's being used to tweet one's reaction to the latest X-Factor outrage. The point is that charging would cease to be something one does and become something which just happens.

But Qi devices can already do a lot of that, and one has to question if this isn't just Qualcomm trying to squeeze some revenue out of a product that hasn't gone anywhere since being acquired two years ago. Qualcomm is a big brand, and has significant pull with the handset manufacturers whose support will be necessary to get the technology designed in, but if it were to throw that weight behind the Qi standard we'd almost certainly have wireless charging a lot sooner.

The unnamed consumer brand will be announced in the next couple of weeks, along with a major effort to spell out the advantages of WiPower over Qi charging. Competition in such things often spurs development, but two standards competing for such an unproven market is surely one too many. ®

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