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Starbucks Rollout Could Mark Turning Point in Wireless Charging Battle

Starbucks
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

For the past couple of years, several competitors have been duking it out to become the standard for wireless device charging.

Consumers have mostly chosen to wait on the sidelines, grudgingly toting power cords or battery cases for those times when their phones won't make it through the day.

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Seeing both a need and an opportunity, Starbucks said earlier this year that it would begin a nationwide rollout of wireless charging spots in its coffee shops. The chain is opting for a city-by-city approach, starting Tuesday in the San Francisco Bay Area as the company lit up wireless charging in 1,500 spots within 200 stores.

"This is step one of us taking it national," Starbucks VP Matthew Guiste said in an interview at a wireless charging-equipped location near Levi's headquarters in San Francisco.

More cities in the U.S. and abroad are planned for next year, though Starbucks isn't saying which ones are coming next.

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As for the technology, Starbucks went with an option provided by Powermat Technologies, backers of the Power Matters Alliance. Many of the early devices with wireless charging capabilities have supported the rival Qi format. However, Starbucks said it was attracted to Powermat because it allows for central management of its charging stations. That means Starbucks doesn't have to keep track of which outlets are working at what stores.

Instead, Powermat can remotely monitor which charging pods are getting the most use and other details of the charging network.

In choosing Powermat, Starbucks could well be serving as kingmaker in the standards battle, given the sway it holds over technology. After all, public Wi-Fi was something of a rarity before Starbucks began putting the Internet in all its stores back in 2001.

"We expect that with this partnership, [other] people will follow," said Powermat founder Ran Poliakine. (Poliakine turned over the CEO spot on Tuesday to former BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins.)

JOHANNES EISELE | AFP | Getty Images

Starbucks' move follows an earlier test run in Boston and San Jose. Among the changes made since then was to move the wireless charging spots closer to customers. Testing showed that customers wanted their phones as close as possible so they can use them while charging, so they don't get stolen and, mostly, just because people like to be close to their phones.

Starbucks will sell the needed adaptors for $9.99, but also plans to have loaner models for use during the initial rollout. There are three separate color-coded models, with options for old and new iPhones as well as the microUSB connectors used on most Android devices.

For his part, Guiste can't wait until the phones themselves have wireless charging support built in, eliminating the need for the ring-shaped attachments entirely.

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AT&T, another backer of the Powermat-led approach, has been pushing its device makers to include support for that wireless charging technology.

"We've been pressing really hard," says AT&T vice president Jeff Howard.

But why bother with wireless charging at all?

Guiste said the decision came after years of watching customers get on their hands and knees searching for outlets.

"This is just a much more elegant solution," he said.

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