The trouble with wireless power

6 May 2008

Splashpower, the UK company that launched several years back with a popular promise - to banish the proliferation of power adapters in business baggage - is no more. Having gone into liquidation just over a month ago, its patents have been bought on behalf of competitor Fulton Innovation by its parent Alticor.

Fulton has its own wireless charging technology that it calls eCoupled. The Splashpower purchase means it gets a second tranche of patents, just in case this business ever takes off.

The problem that Splashpower faced, and which Fulton still has, is convincing electronics OEMs that they should dump a cheap charger, that uses cables, and replace it with something more expensive. Yes, there is the vague promise that, if lots of manufacturers go with inductive charging, you need only take one charger and its associated power pad with you on a trip to keep music players, cellphones, laptops and PDAs all nicely topped up. Just as long as all the manufacturers sign up to the same system.

The problem with this kind of charger is that all the real IP is in the protocol that gets the charger to talk to the gadget. With one less player in the market, that is more likely. But it's not guaranteed. And the promise of fewer chargers only works if lots of OEMs all sign up for the same system. When you consider that the main component of the IP is a communications protocol, that's a lot of power you give to the power supplier. And it's a big shift from today's market where you have 500 different Chinese manufacturers all happy to give you a very good price on a custom power adapter.

The Register is right on the money here talking about USB as a more likely unifier for the one charger to rule them all. For starters, there is already a burgeoning aftermarket in USB charging adapters. And, even if gadget makers can't agree on which USB connector to use, it's a lot more convenient to take a few small adapters on a trip than a bag full of wall warts.

So, what happens to wireless power? Stays right where it is: in situations where you don't want exposed power connector pads. Fulton's eCoupled technology started off in the water treatment business where corrosion would quickly destroy electrical contacts. And there are plenty of electric toothbrushes on sale. Why? Because they get wet too.

The one wild card in this business is the idea of microwave power transmission: beaming electrical power and signals to things like bookshelf speakers and light fittings from a transmitter in your living room. It sounds like a great way to get rid of wiring clutter. But just wait until the electrosensitives get stuck into that one.

3 Comments

A good observation on the benefits and challenges for the industry. As you can imagine, we’re pretty excited about the acquisition of Splashpower and the opportunity it gives us to expand the wireless power industry even further.

You’re right to say that getting many OEMs to see the value and consumer appeal of wireless power is one of the biggest challenges for the companies in this industry. That’s why Fulton is working with over 100 companies on wireless power solutions for their products and why we have hosted an interoperability summit the last two years to drive adoption of a specification across many OEMs. I’m not sure any other player in the field could make that claim right now.

Like you, we believe the winner in the category will be the company that can build lasting relationships with as many partners as possible. What else can we say except watch this space!

What are you thoughts on WildCharge's technology? It's conductive (vs inductive) charging -- so basically a new way of doing an old thing. Also, there is no feedback control loop (i.e. cheap).

Raul

I think if I were to play off technologies against each other, I'd probably hand the advantage to inductive as you can use the sealing between the two units as a selling point. With anything that has exposed contacts, you always have the issue of them degrading in air.

I think Wildcharge's approach to selling the adapters as aftermarket products is interesting. It means you can get the chargers into the market without having to sign up OEM customers.

However, you then have the question of how you deal with OEMs who will probably be less than pleased about a power company providing new backplates for their phones and MP3 players.

Dave's point about the winner being the one with the relationships is true: the issue is how you get there. In the original post, I thought only environmentally sensitive products such as toothbrushes were good candidates. However, thinking about it, there are other products such as electronic toys that provide a way in for wireless power.