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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Nokia's wireless charging proposition - very clever indeed

Yesterday I watched Nokia's launch of its new Lumia 920. Apart from making me want to throttle whoever came up with the hideous canary yellow colour, it seemed fairly impressive. I've been playing with a Lumia 900 for a while now as a secondary data-only device, and I like it and the Windows 7.5 OS quite a lot. The 920 takes it further - the PureView technology, in less-bulky/Symbian-inhibited form than the 808 - is an obvious winner.

One other thing that  has taken a few hours to sink in has been the wireless charging idea. Now this isn't new -  I've been shown demos of mats and pads for about five years, I think (Powermat was founded in 2007). Various companies have tried either selling it themselves or partnering (eg Duracell) but it's remained resolutely unsuccessful and over-geeky.

My initial reaction to Nokia's inclusion of it was "gimmick".

But on reflection, I'm no longer so sure. Smartphones with big batteries still go flat quite quickly, especially if used "in anger". We shouldn't really be surprised about this - if you use something as a miniature version of a laptop & perform similar tasks on a high-res screen with lots of processing, the energy still has to come from somewhere. Even a big 1500-2000MAh phone battery is a fraction of a typical notebook's.

So. We all complain about battery life. Yes, there's some stuff the network vendors & operators can do to improve the radio's consumption, but that's only part of the story - the screen & chips still drain a lot of power even when offline or via WiFi. (Incidentally - remember that WiFi use to be a "battery killer" on phones? Now it's a saviour compared to 3G/4G).

Yes, we can charge most phones from our PCs' USB sockets these days, but while we might sometimes carry the cable, we probably don't carry about the main standalone phone charger in our bags (if we have a bag). I've been in cars or on planes with USB sockets to charge things, but that's pretty rare - and also a bit inconvenient with the wires anyway.

Nokia has come up with two clever options with its wireless charging that make me think the idea could have legs:
  • Integration with other bits of hardware / accessories (the JBL speaker / charger thing)
  • Establishment of public wireless charging hotspots with its deals with Coffee Bean Cafes and Virgin Atlantic lounges (I'm going to call them "Powerspots" and see if I get to claim coining rights in a few years' time)
The interesting this is that this is all standards-based using something called Qi, proposed by the  Wireless Power Consortium. So Qi-enabled phones and chargers should be able to interoperate in future.

One Nokia exec is quoted as saying "The Virgin deal is a first step in our plan to make wireless charging as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi is today."

It's an obvious link to make (hence "Powerspots" - see you like it already, don't you?).

But what's really interesting is how today's WiFi models came about. Initially used for industrial applications and driven by companies like Symbol, WiFi spread in the early 2000's to enterprise offices, and then consumers' homes and public hotspots.
But do you know which company first "consumerised" WiFi and ultimately catalysed its adoption in laptops and homes? No, not Intel with the Centrino chip in 2003, although that was a "crossing the chasm" moment. Four years earlier, in 1999, a certain Mr Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the AirPort card and base station, based - perhaps unusually for Apple - on the standardised 802.11 technology.

While other people already thought about public hotspots, the home use of WiFi was still very new - unsurprising as ADSL and cable modems were only just starting to emerge. Importantly, the timing meant that third-party WiFi became popular enough - and usable enough - that telecom operators were not able to exert much power over it, especially as it operates in licence-exempt spectrum.

Now clearly, there's no obvious telco business model for wireless charging anyway. But what Nokia has (perhaps) catalysed here is a separate trend towards places offering - and maybe in some cases charging for - power for phones, or offering it as a value-add to gain loyalty, much like WiFi today.

(Sidenote: there are already various phone-charging-for-money business models, eg with assorted safe-boxes in hotels/bars or even whole shops in developing countries, which just act as power-points for people without electricity at home).
So, I think Nokia's been quite smart here. Whether it can directly monetise Qi and wireless charging is yet to be seen (I can't see it setting up a big PowerSpot network itself) but it might just buy it a couple of points of market share at a critical period. It's been sensible going down the standards route because it catalyses the public-powerspot market and therefore (maybe) spiked Apple's or Samsung's guns if they had anything proprietary in development.

One last thought-experiment for network operators though:

What happens to your network if all your customers had fully-charged phones, all the time? What's the incremental use, and is it "more of the same" or fundamentally different in character?


Dave Wright (@wifidave) said...

The "power as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi" is a nice vision. I'd see it as another venue amenity (cost built into overall biz model) -vs- a standalone paid service in the long term. I'm onboard with the "powerspot" label.

It struck me that if this widespread powerspot vision were realized, it would be yet another available public service for your mobile that has nothing to do with an MNO. In a few short years, we've transitioned from a world in which the MNO controlled virtually your entire experience on the handset (admittedly, not the charging of it) to one where much(most?) of what you do with your mobile has nothing to do with your MNO (Wi-Fi, apps, app stores, etc...).

I believe there are some profound implications of that shift in psychology. It is more aligned with a "bring your own phone"/prepaid/no-contract model and it supports the evolving view of licensed carriers as just another access network option.

Jess said...

The idea of public powerspot is interesting. There are questions about the need of wireless charging in this context. But also I appreciate this smarter move from Nokia!!