McDonald's customer Natalie Illanes charges her iPhone at lunch at a McDonald's in Manhattan.
(Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
Jordan Friedman, USA TODAY
Has the future of mobile technology arrived?
Starbucks, McDonald's and Delta Sky Club are testing wireless phone-charging stations for customers, possibly ushering in a new era of smartphone use at cafes, restaurants, bars and major venues across the USA.
Last week, Starbucks announced it will roll out Duracell Powermat charging docks at 10 stores in Silicon Valley over the next few weeks, expanding its pilot test, which began last fall, from 17 locations in Boston.
Companies have made wireless chargers available for purchase and personal use in the past few years, and chains such as Starbucks could play a role in making them more mainstream, says Gerard Goggin, a professor at the University of Sydney who has researched global cellphone culture. The coffee chain has led the way in popularizing public Wi-Fi the past decade.
Wireless charging is also spreading on an international level, with charging stations appearing in public places across Europe and Asia.
"Electricity is the last great barrier in mobiles, and if it can be sorted out, and mobiles fully untethered, users will embrace this," Goggin says in an e-mail. "Starbucks' adoption of wireless charging will be helpful, but it really depends on a whole system, and network of chargers and charging stations being possible."
Duracell Powermats installed at Starbucks and other chains lie on the store's tabletops and look somewhat like flat coasters. They are accessible with smartphones such as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy.
While you don't need an outlet or a cord, many phone users will need a Duracell Wireless Battery Case or a Power Matters Alliance (PMA) portable battery to use the charging pads, at least for now.
Daniel Schreiber, president of Powermat Technologies, says he expects wireless-charging technology to be integrated into more phones in the future. AT&T has already announced plans to start doing so next year.
McDonald's has been testing wireless chargers at a handful of New York locations as well as across Europe. Delta Airlines has placed them in New York's La Guardia Airport in Delta Sky Club lounges and the Marine Air Terminal, where the Delta Shuttle operates.
More than 550 charging stations are available at Madison Square Garden. And the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a coffee and tea retailer in 24 countries, is testing wireless chargers at several Los Angeles locations. Rapper Jay-Z also had them installed at his 40/40 Club in New York.
"People look at their phones at noon, 2 in the afternoon, and notice their battery is drained," Schreiber says. "If we added wireless power to surfaces, you'd never run out of power. It would be replenishing your battery throughout the day."
Two main groups are competing to become the "standard" in wireless phone charging: the PMA, the category that the Duracell Powermat falls under, and the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which developed the Qi standard to charge mobile devices. Both have the backing of dozens of companies.
While public places have started turning to wireless phone charging, WPC Chairman Menno Treffers says most wireless chargers are limited to homes, offices and cars such as the Toyota Prius. He says he sees Qi-standard wireless chargers mostly in Japan and, to some extent, Europe.
"Just putting the phone down and the chargers picking it up is so natural and convenient," Treffers says.
Starbucks' test-run of the chargers is an attempt to uphold the chain's commitment to providing a home-away-from-home atmosphere, Starbucks spokeswoman Linda Mills says. That's the same incentive that prompted the national chain to become one of the first public places to offer Wi-Fi, starting back in 2001.
Mills says the company expanded the test from Boston to the West Coast after receiving positive feedback from customers and store managers. They haven't yet committed to a broader rollout of the product.
The companies that have begun providing wireless charging say that connectivity is always high on the list of customers' requests.
"We're all on our devices so often, so it's important to have those charging options everywhere, and this was a neat way to do that with the Duracell Powermat," Delta spokeswoman Leslie Scott says, adding that people can check out cases at the Sky Mile Club to use the chargers.
Madison Square Garden is exploring additional opportunities to integrate more Duracell Powermat chargers into its facilities, says Ron Skotarczak, executive vice president of partnership sales at Madison Square Garden.
Goggin says wireless devices could play an integral role the future of phone charging. "Wireless chargers are a great idea, and, if practical and cheap, will become part of mobile phone culture," he says in an e-mail.