The Quiet Qi Coup?

When I first moved to my own place, I inherited quite a bit of furniture. It wasn’t expensive, but it was the kind of furniture that befits somebody in a temporary living situation, or somebody just starting out. Despite not being expensive, the nightstand in that set had a few interesting features. It had a built in lamp (which I fairly easily converted into a smart bulb), a usb charging port, a small two prong outlet, and a Qi charging spot. I used every part of that night stand, but for the longest time the charging spot sat empty… until very recently.

I don’t buy high end phones. For the price of a good phone, I can basically by a full gaming pc, except the phone is more locked down, with fewer software options and worse peripherals than what a p c would support. So I buy towards the back end of the curve. A side effect of this is that I often miss out on some of the more flashy peripherals that do come with owning top end hardware, such as nfc support, and, you guessed it, Qi charging. But the second one is fixable if you’re willing to invest a little bit of money in a fairly cheap adapter. I had a tiny bit of extra money laying around so I decided to do some shopping to see what all the fuss was about. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

The device itself is hair thin, and is designed to stick to your case backing with a tiny strip of adhesive that comes pre-applied to the charging pad. You simply stick the pad on the back of your device, and plug a trailing USB adapter into whatever USB charging port the device supports. The company I used made pads for both USB-C and Micro-USB, so I decided to get one for my (Micro-USB) kindle 3, and one for my phone. I’ve been using them for about three days now and have brought both of my devices to a full charge using only the charging pads that I installed. A few things jump out at me.

1. The pads don’t have any kind of magnetic contact, so it can be a bit hard to figure out if I’m actually placing the device correctly on charging spot. Making things even more interesting is the fact that the USB status light on my nightstand will actually start indicating charging status long before the charge pad is properly aligned with the charging spot. And it has to be aligned just so.

2. If I actually need the USB charging port for data transfer capabilities it can be a bit difficult to unplug the charging pad from my phone once it is plugged in1.

The first point is annoying, but the second point hasn’t bothered me as much as I thought it would. If I’m being honest, I don’t actually use USB to transfer data between my devices much anymore. I run my own cloud, so there isn’t much of a concern about dependency on Google Drive being the only point of access between my phone and my PCs.

But this also makes me wonder: are data ports about to become extinct? Think about it. There are a lot of parallels between Qi and another feature that used to come standard on everything, but is now basically gone. Yes, I am talking about the 3.5 millimeter jack. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to ship any kind of multimedia device without a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, yet here we are. Today the headphone jack seems to only be a feature on low end devices. Gone are the days when Google released ads making fun of their competitors for not having it. Even the pixel doesn’t seem to have it anymore. Allegedly this had something to do with waterproofing2. But if that were the case, wouldn’t data ports (which actively run current!) be just as much of a risk? And yet they still exist on these phones. It’s not like we have a standard that can justify eliminating them too. Oh wait….

The answer to the disappearance of the 3.5 millimeter jack so far has been to fall back to most devices prebuilt bluetooth capabilities. But the thing about bluetooth is that it requires a complex stack of software to parse the audio and deliver it to wherever it is going. At a software level, it is also a data stream that can be read and checked for things like, say, digital watermarks that can enforce content restrictions. Analog holes have been a long thorn in the side of industries which have interests in restricting the dissemination of copyrighted media, and I can’t help but wonder if the move away from analog audio will eventually facilitate this.

In the same way, I wonder if Qi standards are the first step in locking down devices to particular cloud providers. Who needs a bespoke plug for phones anymore if charging is already handled without any kind of wiring whatsoever? Want to move a file from your phone to computer in 2053? Sure! We can help you with that, but it will require a paltry subscription fee of five bucks a month to our monopoly cloud service! Who needs that silly data port anymore?! Want to use a secondary cloud provider? Oops, too bad, they have to be licensed through our proprietary software API for no reason whatsoever. Oooh look at that, the only thing that API connects through is our own cloud! Good luck moving your data through any provider that isn’t officially sanctioned by us, sucker.

The thing is, Qi really is convenient. There are no cables to trip over and accidentally force disconnect your device. Qi (as noted above) is already becoming a standard feature in some furniture. And Qi conversion kits are becoming a very interesting compatibility layer between conflicting usb port types. With the right conversion kit, I don’t have to care whether or not my device supports USB-C, micro-USB, or (potentially) even mini USB! And having a charging pad greatly reduces the amount of wear and tear on my existing USB ports. Have you ever kept a device long enough that the data port simply won’t hold a cable anymore? I’m looking at the difference between needing to plug in a device every two days versus needing to plug it in every two months, if that. Because with Qi, there is basically nothing to wear out. And the only time I would ever need to bother even fiddling with the plug are the times that I explicitly need to unplug my charging pad and plug in a data cable.

Qi has a lot of potential, but I think whether or not it turns out to be good or bad is going to depend on how the industry sees it’s role in the broader device ecosystem. Will it do to phones what introducing bluetooth has done to the three millimeter jack, or will device manufacturers be reasonable (for once) and understand that there will always be security scenarios where data transfers just have to stay local. There is no reason why my private encryption key pairs should ever touch any part of the internet!

Unfortunately, this is going to depend on people not being greedy. And when has that ever worked… In short, Qi offers a lot of convenience, I just hope it’s not a Trojan horse.

  1. In doing a bit of research for this post, I discovered another variant that fixes this problem. Oh well… Live and learn I guess… ↩︎
  2. Google’s officially stated reasoning for this is even more disgusting. when confronted about their abrupt change of stance by the press, they offered a lot of hand wavy marketing jargon that interestingly did not answer the question at all:
    “We ultimately decided that including a headphone jack detracted from core product specifications and didn’t align with the Google ecosystem we are striving for,” ↩︎

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