CES 2016 – Stalemate for Wireless charging

I mentioned at the outset that I was interested in studying wireless charging at the show. I came away disappointed. The week before the show, a friend at a Chinese company told me they had abandoned their wireless charging efforts because the market has become too commoditized. Let me repeat that. A Shenzhen-based low-end, metal-bending component company thinks that the market for wireless charging components has no room for profit margins.

Then at the show, the other big problem facing wireless charging was front and center – there are still two standards. Both standards have had booths in the same spot at the entrance to the show floor for years. They are right next to, but around the corner from each other, so they can not see the other one. And that is pretty much the best metaphor for the industry I can think of.

The sector remains in stalemate. To be fair, things have improved somewhat. There are only two standards today, which is better than the five we had a few years ago. But then each standard has now introduced multiple variations of their technology.

For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when I went to one group and asked what they had to say new at the show this year. Their answer was “We have a new name”. As an analyst, I have to be level-headed and open-minded, but I admit that answer almost prompted a violent reaction from me.

That’s it wireless charging, you win, you have exceeded my (significant) capacity to imbibe acronyms and branding exercises. I have lost track of the two standards’ various marketing efforts, but the names no longer really matter. One group represents the companies that build devices that need to be charged. The other group represents the component makers and the places where chargers need to get installed (furniture makers, retailers, auto makers, etc.) There is also a geographic flavor to this. The device makers are largely Asian companies, while the components and furniture makers are US and European. Increasingly, we are seeing some overlap in membership, but what the industry really needs is for these two groups to merge.

If it were not so maddening, this would make an interesting case study in technology standards. Past standards wars – VHS vs. Betmax, GSM vs. CDMA – have represented vertical consortia comprised of both makers and customers. For some reason, wireless charging remains split along industry lines, putting vendors and customers in different, competing camps.

And then there is Apple. Sad to say, but I really think the only way for this impasse to end and wireless charging to reach consumers is for Apple to add the feature to the iPhone. Then everyone else will race to follow suit.

Maybe next year.

UPDATE: This post originally went out in my newsletter. A reader and friend pointed out that the market is going to ship 100 million phones with wireless charging this year, and 30 car models will have wireless chargers built-in, along with 20 furniture manufacturers building chargers into lamps and tables. So the industry is not standing still. Nonetheless, we are still below the point of widespread consumer adoption.  For that to happen, I think we are going to need a single standard.


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