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9/4/2012
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Intel Charges Ahead With WCT Wireless Power Standard

Intel and partner IDT build chipsets for Wireless Charging Technology, which won't be available until next year. Will other wireless power standards beat them to market?

Intel Puts Future On Exhibit
Intel Puts Future On Exhibit
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Whether it's corralling the unruly herd of cords beneath a desk or jockeying for position near the lone outlet at a cafe, few computer or smartphone users have been spared the frustrations of keeping their devices powered. And tech vendors are racing to provide users with an alternative to fighting over a power outlet.

Intel and Integrated Device Technology (IDT) are getting into the game by partnering to develop chipsets for Intel's Wireless Charging Technology (WCT), the companies announced August 29.

However, for WCT to have an impact, it will need to navigate a growing field of wireless-charging technologies and competing standards.

The partnership's initial vision sees power shared across devices much like tethering grants a laptop access to a smartphone's Internet connection. A user will be able to place a compatible mobile device within an inch of a WCT-equipped Ultrabook and the phone or tablet will begin siphoning energy from the computer. Intel and IDT will validate devices once reference designs, which are slated to become available in early 2013, make their way to OEMs. The collaboration will see WCT transmitters integrated into not only laptops, smartphones, and other mobile gadgets but also standalone chargers and potentially furniture, cars, and anywhere else battery-drained devices cause headaches.

[ There is a lot of new technology being developed for devices. Read Android Device Chip Race: MIPS Takes On ARM. ]

Though Intel has been working on wireless technology since 2008, many of WCT's specifics remain under wraps. For now, it's known the standard relies on resonance technology, which allows devices to be charged without physically touching a power source. Magnetic induction, the other major method for wireless energy transfer, generally demands contact between transmitters and can involve costlier and less scalable hardware.

Prior to the Intel-IDC announcement, two major coalitions had been grappling for control of the fledgling industry's direction: the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), whose growing list of over 120 members includes Nokia, HTC, LG, Verizon, Texas Instruments, and Sony; and the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), which Qualcomm and Samsung launched at CTIA in May.

More established, the WPC standard advocates Qi technology. Qi's traditional reliance on induction might have been an advantage for WCT--but the consortium announced an upgrade in August that enables magnetic resonance charging and is backward compatible with existing devices. The WPC standard has achieved meaningful market penetration in Japan and continues to slowly infiltrate the U.S. market with products ranging from Fulton Innovation charging stations to Nokia's forthcoming Windows phone, the Lumia 920.

The newer A4WP standard is also built around resonance powering. The alliance plans to release specifications to OEMs soon, but in the meantime, the Galaxy S3--for which an optional wireless charging accessory is offered--relies on the same basic concepts.

WCT's approach is somewhat different from its competitors'. Many existing products involve device-fitting sleeves, not onboard tech. Adoption can be an expensive hassle that that has led to skepticism regarding whether wireless power's benefits outweigh its costs. Intel and IDT's plans for integrated chipsets somewhat assuage these concerns, as the device-to-device power distribution greatly simplifies ecosystem peripherals.

The scope of WCT's differentiation won't be clear until products hit the market--but until then, Intel's claim that a 10% drain on a laptop's battery will enable a 30% increase in a coupled smartphone's power is certainly intriguing.

In a blog post, Intel claims it is working with not only IDT but also "peripheral vendors (from smartphone cases to printers and cameras), OEMS, and other ecosystem partners"--language that suggests big plans without laying out a specific roadmap. There's been speculation, that the Silicon Valley giant could leverage the IDT partnership to compete against ARM in the mobile market. A more open and interoperable approach is also possible, however, as IDT, whose recent wireless offerings include Qi-certified products, remains a WPC member.

Apple may have a role to play, also. The Cupertino-based titan holds patents for not only an induction-driven charging station but alsothe capability to wirelessly share power across devices--a utility very similar to what IDT and Intel have planned.

Whatever aspect of the market WCT ends up targeting, the spoils of the wireless energy competition could be immense. IMC Research estimates that shipments of wireless power devices will reach 100 million by 2015, and Pike Research sees the market tripling to $15 billion by 2020. Intel may release more WCT details at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco later this month.

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