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Apple shuns emerging global charging standard – and Toyota

Published February 5, 2013

It’s no secret that Apple has prima donna issues. The iPhone company has long been the target of gentle ribbing for their persistent standoffishness from other technologies. I mean, it’s been several years now since they first got their kindergarten report card back with a sad face next to “Plays Well With Others.” Apple needs to get its act together.

Or, at the very least, play well with Qi, the emerging global standard for wireless charging. It was created by the Wireless Power Consortium, a coalition of 145 member companies who participate in the ongoing development of the Qi standard. With Qi in place, any manufacturer that wants to build a wireless induction charging solution knows exactly what specs to build to and knows that there will be plenty of devices out there that can take advantage of it. Audiovox just announced the Qi Cradle, for example, an automotive accessory designed to charge just about any smartphone just by sitting there, no jacks, plugs or wires required. Cool, right?

Without Qi, we have to imagine a world in which wireless charging technologies are available in public spaces such as airports and coffee shops but lacking this globally accepted standard for the wireless inductive charging setup. Every coffee chain would end up only compatible with two or three types of phones, free Nokia charging at McDonald’s, free Samsung charging at Starbucks, free LG charging at Stumptown Coffee in Portland only. Apple, of course, would start its own chain of coffeehouses with free iPhone charging. iSmug Coffeeria.

But that won’t happen because of Qi, established to avoid precisely this problem – and, moreover, to smooth the way for any company that wants to build on wireless charging to spur innovation in their own industry and with their own products. Audiovox, for reiterated example.

Qi will even enable manufacturers that aren’t, strictly speaking, in the mobile-technology business – such as automakers – to embed transmitters into their own products, helping to create and expand the transmitter infrastructure for wireless charging. In fact, Toyota just announced that its 2013 Avalon will have Qi wireless charging embedded into its centre console as part of an options package. Denso, in collaboration with Phillips and Lite-On Digital Solutions, has created what it calls the first ever integrated in-vehicle wireless mobile phone charger, and Toyota quickly signed up to be its first client.

Denso can create the technology, and Toyota can embed it, because both know that Qi is a widely accepted standard within the mobile phone development world as well. If the market were still flooded with competing versions of wireless charging, it would be much harder for Toyota to take this step – meaning Denso would have a much less sure market, so would have a harder time developing the technology.

In a fit of irony, misinformation or serious continuity error, Toyota’s press material on the subject includes an image demonstrating the onboard Qi technology where an iPhone is being placed on this svelte charging shelf in the centre console of an Avalon. It’s exactly wrong, and here’s why:

You can use wireless charging system in your new Toyota if you’ve got just about any of the 34 mobile phone models that carry the Qi chip inside – but you cannot use it with your iPhone. (For that matter, nor can you use Audiovox’s new cradle with your iPhone – unless you buy an aftermarket iPhone case that has a Qi-based wireless receiving system embedded inside). In fact, you can’t use an iPhone with any Qi-enabled charger.

And it’s not because Apple hasn’t got around to producing an iPhone with the Qi chip in it yet – they easily could have done so with the iPhone 5. No, it’s because Apple, rather than participate in the global standard, has decided to file a patent for its own system, what it’s calling “a true wireless charging system.” Their patent doesn’t describe technology they actually have created (that we know of), but rather something that they’re working on or perhaps have only conceived. It works on some of the same principles as the Qi system, but will, if it’s realized according to the current vision, allow mobile devices to charge from a distance of about a metre away from the transmitting power source.

This isn’t the first time, either, that an auto company has come out with something new that everyone participated in except Apple. Ford has and continues to refine a hands-free, voice-activated system that you can use with any mobile device. In other words, it won’t be just the car’s own integrated technologies that can be voice-controlled – you can plug in the device, then use the car’s system to tell it what to do. Unless of course you own an iPhone, then you won’t be able to open up any of the phone’s functions using voice control. You’ll have to pick up the phone and mess with it until you’ve got the function open and set to where you want it – then you can start using voice commands. By that time, though, you’re flipped over in a ditch because you were messing with your phone instead of driving – which is exactly what the voice-activated system is supposed to help prevent.

I’ve mentioned before my reservations about voice activation systems as supposedly safe alternatives to other ways of using mobile devices. While clearly better than taking your eyes off the road, I’ve seen no evidence that voice commands aren’t a risky diversion of your attention from the road. But it’s pretty clear that if such a system is going to provide any benefit, it’s going to need the actual devices to cooperate. A hands-free system that requires extensive use of the hands is no good to anyone.

There was a time – you young people will have to ask your… uh, somewhat older siblings – when using Apple products meant always having to say things like, “Oh, that document wouldn’t open? That’s because I use a Mac. Here, I’ll fix it.” Pretending to be sheepish, but actually a bit smug. Gradually, operating systems became more and more compatible, and eventually those issues disappeared. To Mac users, that meant the loss of our fake career as iconoclasts, but it also was a kind of victory. The technological world had to cope with us, now, instead of us always having to bend for them.

That earlier, always-having-to-apologize-for-your-platform era is not one we should be trying to relive. I don’t want to constantly bump into technologies I can’t use because I carry an iPhone. I don’t want to argue with a friend over where we have coffee because her phone needs a Caribou and mine needs an iBean. It’s embarrassing enough that I can’t text photos to Android users. If Apple is really the superior company it claims to be, it should be able to make using its products a seamless experience. Instead, it seems to be creating seams and bumps and obstacles wherever it can.

Maybe this new thing Apple patented is the real deal – maybe it’s so great that it will blow everything else out of the water, thus creating a new kind of seamlessness. Maybe it’s going to be Apple’s Betamax. Either way, I hope they figure it out soon. There are only so many times, after all, that you’re allowed to repeat kindergarten.

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