Wireless power is the next step towards a truly cable-free future, and the tech companies have not been slow to pick up on its potential, with two companies on either side of the Atlantic coming up with their own solutions to this dilemma.

This week PC Advisor reported on Splashpower, a UK company based in Cambridge, which has developed a module which can be placed in mobile devices and will allow them to charge by simply being placed near a recharge pad, while US startup company, MobileWise, is working on a similar solution to actually power devices.

MobileWise is working with Acer and others to ship (early next year) a pad with a conductive surface capable of powering compatible computing devices as efficiently as if they were plugged into an electrical outlet by simply resting them on top of it. It believes this solution will finally do away with power cables altogether by offering wireless electrical power and charging, which may enable mobile device users to finally to cut the cord.

An early design of the technology resembles a thick rubber place mat. Metal "connectivity points" span the pad's surface and deliver power to the charging contacts on a compatible notebook, mobile phone, or other device that is laid on the surface. A single pad can power or recharge various compatible devices at once, accommodating as many as will fit on the pad, according to company representatives. Each unit will contain the intelligence to identify itself and its specifications to the pad. The largest of the first pads is limited to 240W of output.

Power potential

The technology’s potential uses are diverse, said Andy Goren, the company's chief executive officer. One obvious benefit is that a pad, which has a single power cord that plugs into the wall, could replace the multitude of power supplies required for individual devices that fit on its surface.

"All these different wires are getting replaced all the time by wireless technologies. The last problem that has remained is with the power supply," Goren said. The concept was devised by company founders, who include former executives of Palm and Motorola.

PC and handheld device maker Acer has committed to releasing a number of "next-generation" mobile computing devices in the first half of 2003 that will ship with a wire-free power supply based on MobileWise's technology, said Arif Maskatia, Acer's chief technology officer. He wouldn't say which devices will first support electricity pads. However, this week's demonstration featured Acer's soon-to-be-released TravelMate Tablet PC.

Samsung Electronics is also partnering with MobileWise to use the technology in future products. The pads are expected cost less than US$200 (£128), and become available early in 2003.

Safe base

The base is safe for human contact and emits no harmful radiation, the company says. It will only distribute power to devices placed on top of it that also contain a special microchip developed by MobileWise. The chip sends information to the pad, such as how many watts are required to power the device. That means other objects, such as a metal wristwatch or a full coffee cup, would be unaffected when placed on top of the mat. Even a liquid spill would not harm the MobilWise pad, Goren said.

MobileWise, in large part a microchip designer, has developed a low-cost chip that can be integrated into the chipset of any device so it can draw power from a pad. The company has also developed the reference designs for pads of various sizes, which licensees will customise and build.

Hoping to attract a broad base of customers, MobileWise has designed the pads to work with some devices that don't ship with the MobileWise chip. The company is working with manufacturers to release adapters that will plug into existing mobile devices. Potential adapters expected to ship by mid-2003 include replacement mobile phone batteries and small adapters that will plug into a device's power input jack, Goren said.

Future focus

The pad’s market success, however, depends on a number of circumstances. "It's a cart and horse issue. The manufacturers would love to see the device...it could make them a bit more competitive," Enderle said. "The problem is that people aren't going to want to buy the mat unless there are devices that work on it."

MobileWise is already devising plans for future uses of the technology. It could be used to supply power to toys, kitchen appliances and power tools, the company said. Because the rubbery plastic pads are impervious to food and liquid spills, MobileWise envisions using surfaces of the same material as a counter or desktop, powering common household appliances.

The technology can also transfer data, and could someday replace a notebook docking station, which is used to distribute electricity as well to act as a connection point to the Internet and peripherals, Goren says. For example, a digital camera placed on the pad would automatically transfer stored images to the hard drive of a notebook also on the pad. Alternatively, the pad could be used to synchronise data between a PDA and a notebook.