'Wire-free' electricity juices mobile devices

A company that claims to have solved the "last wire" dilemma announced Monday that it is working with Acer Inc. and other manufacturing partners to deliver early next year a pad with a conductive surface that can power computing devices resting on top of it as if they were plugged into an electrical outlet.

The "last wire" dilemma refers to the power adapters that juice computing devices, which remain one wire that can't been replaced by existing wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and 802.11. MobileWise, based in Los Altos, California, Monday previewed its "wire-free" electricity technology that could cut loose mobile device owners from their power cords.

An early design of the technology looks something like a thick rubber place mat. Metal "connectivity points" span the surface of the pad and are responsible for delivering power to laptop computers, cell phones or other devices that make contact with the surface. A single pad can power any number of devices that fit on top.

Its potential uses are diverse, said Andy Goren, the company's chief executive officer, who demonstrated the technology here Monday. 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," he said.

Grown out of a concept devised by company founders, which include former executives from Palm Inc. and Motorola Inc., the technology is near-ready for release. Computer 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 Acer Chief Technology Officer Arif Maskatia, who attended Monday's unveiling.

The company would not disclose which devices will first ship with electricity pads. However, Monday's demonstration of the technology featured Acer's soon-to-be-released TravelMate Tablet PC.

Samsung Corp. has also announced a partnership agreement with MobileWise to use the technology in future Samsung products, as have Japanese manufacturers RF Technology Inc. and Hanrim Electronics Industries Co. Ltd., which will produce the pads for device makers.

The base is safe to human contact and emits no harmful radiation, the company says. It will only distribute power to devices placed on top of it that include a special microchip developed by MobileWise that sends information to the pad, such as how many watts are required to power the device. That means other objects, such as a wristwatch or a full coffee cup, would be unaffected when placed on top of the mat.

MobileWise is primarily a microchip company and has developed a chip that it sells for US$1.25 a piece, which 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 will be customized and built by licensees of the technology. They are expected to be priced less than $200 with availability in early 2003.

Hoping to attract a broad base of customers, the pads will work with some devices that don't ship with MobileWise's chip, the company said. It is working with manufacturers to release adapters that can plug into existing computing devices. Some potential adapters that will be released in line with the mid-2003 debut include replacement mobile phone batteries, as well as small adapters that plug into a device's power input jack, Goren said.

The pads have promise to free consumers from the power cord and provide device makers with a low cost device that could boost sales, said Rob Enderle, research fellow with Giga Information Group Inc. Its uptake, 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," he said. "The problem is that people aren't going to want to buy the mat unless there are devices that work on them."

MobileWise is already devising plans for future uses of the technology. It could be used to supply power to toys, kitchen appliances or power tools, the company said. The rubbery plastic pads are also impervious to food and liquid spills and MobileWise envisions that someday it could be designed for use as a surface for a counter or desktop, powering common household appliances that are placed on top of it.

The technology can also transfer data, and could someday replace a notebook docking station, which is used to distribute electricity as well act as the connection point to the Internet and peripheral devices, Goren says. In that case, a user could place a digital camera on the pad and have images stored on that camera automatically transferred to the hard drive of a computer also placed on the pad. Similarly, it could be used to synchronize data between a handheld computer and a notebook.

Like most people who see the pad in action, Enderle summed it up: "It's a real cool technology."

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