If you visited a Starbucks in Boston or Silicon Valley during the last year or so, you may have noticed black circles embedded in the coffee bars and tables. You may have even glimpsed an early adopter with a special cellphone case charging an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy simply by resting it on a black disc. If the scene was perplexing, there’s a reason: what you saw was an image from the future.
Some of the world’s biggest brands are quietly preparing their customers for what they see as the next big technology shift. If they have are right, all the power cords and battery chargers that have been cluttering our homes and offices for decades will soon be headed for the nearest landfill. For years, wireless power has been a technically possible and universally desirable geek obsession, fueling dueling standards and an array of gadgets. But so far the required ecosystem of pervasive charging spots along with a critical mass of chargeable devices has failed to emerge. That may, however, be at about to change.
Today, Starbucks will announce the rollout of 100,000 wireless charging spots in coffeehouses around the United States. While it’s still early days, the number of devices embedded with wireless charging capabilities is growing. More than five dozen models have already been released, and there’s a distinct possibility that Apple will include wireless charging in the new iPhone 6, according to media reports last week.
A spokeswoman for Apple declined to comment, however, it wouldn’t be the first time Apple and Starbucks combined their clout to bring a breakthrough wireless technology to mainstream consumers.
In 1999, Apple released AirPort, a base station and wireless card, exposing mass market consumers to wireless home networking for the first time. Two years later, Starbucks began offering Wi-Fi in its coffeehouses, eventually partnering with Apple to offer exclusive entertainment through the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. The juggernaut created by the two brands, both of whom embraced a standard known as 802.11b, helped kill a competing standard known as HomeRF.
Daniel Schreiber, the president of Powermat, one of the leading providers of wireless charging technology, learned a valuable lesson from Wi-Fi’s early days. “Standards are set in coffee shops, not conference rooms,” he told me last year during a trip to Israel where Powermat is headquartered.
Powermat originally participated in a standards body known as the Wireless Power Consortium, but it broke away in early 2012 to form the Power Matters Alliance along with initial members from Procter & Gamble/Duracell, Energy Star, eMerge Alliance, Google, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Sony Pictures Entertainment, General Motors, Facebook and the National Grid. The alliance has since grown to include more than 100 members including Samsung, Qualcomm and AT&T Mobility.
The goal of the alliance was to create the missing ecosystem—something that alliance members felt the consortium was failing to do. Powermat had already started to build bridges with the automotive and consumer products industries, and it hoped the alliance would provide additional momentum.
Over the next two years more than 2,000 charging spots that adhered to the PMA standard were installed in airports and hotels in the United States and Europe. A joint venture with Procter & Gamble called Duracell Powermat secured deals with McDonalds and arranged to put 550 charging spots in Madison Square Garden. Starbucks first introduced the charging spots in its coffeehouses in Boston in the fall of 2012 and later expanded the pilot to Silicon Valley in 2013.
Meanwhile, GM, a member of the PMA alliance and an investor in Powermat, is unveiling new cars equipped with wireless charging pads later this year. They won’t, however, be first to market. Rival car makers such as Toyota have already debuted cars outfitted with charging pads powered by the consortium’s standard known as Qi. The number of handsets capable of wireless charging and embedded with Qi dramatically outnumbers those with PMA. The consortium has also signed up Verizon Wireless, the #1 US mobile carrier, whereas the alliance is backed by AT&T, the #2 carrier.
In a statement, Adam Brotman, Starbuck’s chief digital officer, said the company was pleased by how customers responded to the pilot. “We’ve always tried to anticipate our customers’ needs early in the adoption curve and provide a world class solution,” he said. “We’re expanding this nationally to provide our customers a quality and reliable experience as they use our stores as their respite, their office away from home or as a gathering place with their friends and family.”
“Starbucks is a highly regarded global brand and its decision to roll out a Powermat network is both empowering and transformative for consumers and the mobile industry as a whole,” Jeff Howard, vice president, mobile devices and accessories at AT&T Mobility said in a statement. “Many of our newer devices have compatible technology either embedded or available as an added feature to give consumers the freedom to charge wirelessly.”
Schreiber believes that Starbuck’s announcement will give the alliance’s standard an edge over the consortium’s Qi. He compares it to Warner Brother’s announcement in January 2008 that it would back Blu-ray over HD DVD. During 2007, the market share for Blu-ray disc players versus HD DVD players was evenly split 49/49, according to NPD Group. But one week after Warner Brothers backed Blu-ray, its share jumped to 90 percent according to weekly sales and dollar volume.
Whatever standard prevails, the days of power cords and chargers are numbered. Once carriers, handset makers and car manufacturers commit to a single standard, it will just be a matter of time before wireless charging spots become as pervasive as a hot cup of coffee.