Why can't a mobile be more like a cordless kettle?

Power without plugs

When Dick Powell, ace designer and co-founder of SeymourPowell, designed the Tefal Freeline, the world’s first cordless kettle, it wasn’t for the likes of you and me. The thinking behind it was that while most people could cope with a power lead, those with restricted mobility could not.

The ease of use that it delivered, however, made the Freeline a huge hit and pretty soon plenty of people who were more than capable of unplugging a mains lead started buying cordless kettles too.

Powell’s work is the poster child for Inclusive Design, the idea that if you design something that is easy to use for people with limited cognition or dexterity you make it better for everyone.

Today, plugging a micro USB connector into a phone is another one of those things that desperately need improving. Just knowing which way round the nearly-but-not-quite-reversible plug is needs careful examination.

Painless insertion

Then the insertion has to avoid damaging the connector. If you do it wrong and are lucky you will just break the charger lead; if you are unlucky it is the connector inside the phone.

The Austrian company Emporia has an interesting solution which adds a pin to the lead so that the location and insertion is made easier.

There is a part of the mobile connector standard that allows for a barrel connector, although everyone seems to have ignored that; but alleviating the problem is not as good as making it go away.

This is where wireless comes in. Inductive charging has, of course, been around for years.

In the 1960s Raytheon, the rockets and bombs company which also happened to invent the microwave oven after melting a bar of chocolate in someone’s pocket, looked at using rectifying antennae, known as rectennas, to power drones by firing power beams at them from the ground.

More prosaically plenty of toothbrushes use inductive charging. The problem, however, is that they have needed sizeable coils in both the charging base and the handle of the brush.

What is revolutionary in the latest generation of mobile phones is that a phone with inductive charging is no thicker than one without. It has taken us a while to get here, but phones such as the Lumia 930 have adopted the Qi (pronouched Chee) specification.

Channel your Qi

We have covered the two wireless charging factions – the Alliance for Wireless Power and the Wireless Power Consortium – and their competing standards before but things seem to be setting down. Even Samsung has defected from AWP to WPC, the home of Qi.

Unlike rectennas the Qi spec is not aimed at long distances. It uses near-field magnetic induction and has a very low power drain in standby mode.

The spec offers support for two methods of placing the mobile device on the surface of the base station. Guided positioning helps a user to properly place the mobile device on the surface of a base station that provides power through a single location or a few fixed locations of that surface.

Free positioning enables arbitrary placement of the mobile device on the surface of a base station that can provide power through any location of that surface. In the guided mode it is common to have magnets in both the base and the device to do the location.

Nokia was a powerful ally in the Qi camp. People tend to forget that Nokia is the second biggest phone vendor in the world and ships nearly five million phones a week – around 500 phones a minute, every minute.

That is a lot of potential to influence the world and standards. Being bought by Microsoft has really ramped things up.

I got a Lumia 930 to tinker with wireless charging. It is a phone I had been keen to see because I am a confirmed Lumia 925 user and had wondered if the 930 was too big and too obviously not metal. It isn’t and it isn’t, but I will point you to Andrew Orlowski’s look at the phone.

The charging is, as you would expect, mostly painless. Indeed, on the occasions in the car when I did plug a microUSB into the rump of the phone I felt that I was violating it. After wireless it seemed crude.

Oh, how does the wireless charging work? Here’s how.

Plonk the phone on the plate; the phone chirps and a light on the base shows that it is delivering the juice. If there is not enough current from the transformer the light flashes, and of course the phone doesn’t show that it is charging.

The charge rate is slower, about half that of a wired connection, but as you use wireless so casually it doesn’t matter. With a plate at home and at work it feels very natural to always have the phone on charge.

Ideally, I would have taken the small charging plate in the car but the system needs 1700mA and the USB I was testing is designed for connecting memory sticks to play and didn’t have the necessary oomph.

Indeed I found that I needed to use the mains transformer which came with the plate as most phone chargers are less than 1500mA.

Top gear for cars

Generally it doesn’t matter because you can always buy the right charger for your phone, and with Nokia you have a wide range of Qi chargers.

Either way, having wireless charging in a car is great. When you get into the car there is enough to sort out without faffing about with leads and plugging a phone in.

Car manufacturers are wise to this already, which is why you get remote central locking, remote boot and window closing, keyless go and cars that lock themselves as you walk away. You connect your phone by Bluetooth to play music and take calls.

The latest cars are temples of wirelessness so to have to plug the phone in to charge it – and charging is essential if you want to use the phone as a music player and Sat Nav – well, it feels like driving backwards.

It is good that Toyota has experimented with fitting Qi to the US Avalon, and ironic that it is not on the IQ. Audi also offers Qi charging and it is planned by VW, so you can expect it to permeate through the VW group: Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Seat and Skoda.

Another signatory to Qi is Jeep, which opens the door to other Fiat companies: Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari.

The reason that manufacturers are so on the ball with wireless charging while most of the tech industry is not is that most of the tech industry likes cables.

They mean you can charge and transfer data at the same time. And you can transfer more power and transfer data faster. What is missing is the convenience, and that is hard to explain.

After a while you start to think of it as normal – just as you do with a microwave oven, dishwasher or broadband

When you first get a phone with wireless charging you think “that’s cool” every time you drop the phone on the charging pad, wait for the little plip and look for the icon to light up. But after a while you start to think of it as normal – just as you do with a microwave oven, dishwasher or fast broadband.

A wireless charger becomes part of everyday life. Especially when you have several charging plates, perhaps one in your home office, one at work and one by your bedside.

Nokia even does a wireless charger that lets you know when it is time to charge. It uses Bluetooth Smart – what we used to call BLE or Bluetooth Low Energy until the Bluetooth Special Interest Group got tetchy about it.

The BLE link between the phone and the charger is used to check if the phone needs a top up and if it does the DT-903 gives off a come-hither glow. You don’t even have to pair the BLE because there is NFC pairing between the phone and the plate.

So that is three different wireless protocols in play. It is ironic that all this complication is used to make the whole process painless and uncomplicated.

What is even more interesting is the JBL wireless speaker. This is a pretty decent speaker which also has wireless charging. It is ideal for a kitchen: come home with a low battery, stick on some music while you cook and the phone will be charged by the time you are arguing about whose turn it is to wash up.

All this may sound trivial, but it really is one of those things that once you have it you don’t want to go back.

Bad old days

OK, you can make lots of faux-green claims that having a standard charger means you don’t need to buy a new one when you upgrade your phone, but it is not really about that. It is about not peering and fiddling constantly, and not worrying about breaking charging leads – or the phone.

Forty years ago you would judge the air temperature and set the choke on your car before starting and think that was just what you did, and that cars in which you didn’t have to do that were cool and special.

Now when I get into a classic it is OK because that is part of the ritual, but it is not something I would want to do every day. We can very happily do without wires.

So I am converted. I no longer think of wireless charging as innovative and cool. It has become natural, normal, the right way to do things. I now think of plugging in a fiddly microUSB lead as old-fashioned.

Give it a generation or two and Apple will no doubt “invent” wireless charging, lots of people who have not enjoyed it before will hail it as a great liberation and a few of those who have will protest – but the sage ones will just think to themselves “about time”.

That time might be 11am or 4pm or whenever, but it sounds like tea-time and the ideal opportunity to put on the (cordless) kettle. No-one would buy a corded kettle today. ®

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