Qi: Charging Your Cellphone Without Wires

PHOTO: Cellphone companies have dubbed its wireless charging technology "Qi" (pronounced "chee"), which means "vital energy" in Asian philosophy. Any Qi-compatible device or adapter can be charged with any Qi-compatible charging pad.PlayTechworld
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Smartphones and other portable devices now occupy a central role in many of our lives. According to NPD's Mobile Phone Track, smartphones accounted for 59 percent of all handset sales to U.S. consumers in the third quarter of 2011. These devices can communicate wirelessly using cellular networks, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth.

But ultimately, their hungry batteries must seek out the regenerative respite of a cord connected to a power source. Indeed, many consumers buy extra chargers to keep their devices juiced up in the office or the car, making chargers the second most popular mobile phone accessory, according to NPD's Retail Tracking Service.

For years, brands such as Powermat, Energizer, and Duracell have offered ways to cut -- or at least bridge -- the power cord by using a charging pad on which you simply place a portable device such as a cellphone. The device starts charging as soon as you place it on the pad.

However, since existing portable devices were not created with the pads in mind, the companies had to ship adapters that needed to be slipped over the backs of the devices or replace the backs in order to connect with the device's internal battery. Chargers were compatible only with their brand of adapters, which made adapters hard to find, and made it difficult for cellphone companies to build in the technology so an adapter wasn't needed.

Now, though, that is starting to change. Nearly all of the major companies interested in wireless charging -- and many large cell phone companies, including Samsung, HTC, Nokia, Motorola, and LG -- have joined the Wireless Power Consortium. The group has dubbed its wireless charging technology "Qi" (pronounced "chee"), which means "vital energy" in Asian philosophy. Any Qi-compatible device or adapter can be charged with any Qi-compatible charging pad.

So are we now all ready to lay down our phones to watch their battery levels rise up? Not yet, due to the classic "chicken and egg" problem. None of those major handset companies are currently shipping phones that have built-in Qi compatibility, reducing the incentive for consumers to buy the pads. And since there are so few pads, the handset companies are reluctant to add the technology.

Verizon Wireless, a Qi supporter, has offered Qi-compatible phone backs for some of its most recent 4G phones such as the HTC Thunderbolt, Droid Charge, and LG Revolution. However, they tend to be pricey, retailing for as much as $30 (not including the charging station). They also add a bit of thickness to the phone in an age when most handset companies are competing on ultra-slim designs such as the 7.7 mm Droid Razr. Indeed, it may be tough to get consumers to think about investing much in something that kicks in when they're not generally using their phone. Also, these days most phones can charge via standard microUSB cables, which can be plugged into a PC that often isn't far away.

But the promise of Qi could allow us to say goodbye to our cellphones' wall warts forever. If Qi can become such a widespread standard that manufacturers make it a standard part of their portable devices, we could see it move beyond the charging pad and get built into all kinds of surfaces -- car dashboards and cup holders, nightstands, desks, and conference room tables. That kind of easy charging would reduce a common source of energy drain for many smartphone owners.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin on Twitter) is executive director of industry analysis at The NPD Group (@npdtech on Twitter). He blogs at The NPD Group Blog as well as his own blog, Out of the Box.