2018 may mark the start of a cord-free life, for real

You may not remember, but there was a time when you had to plug a cable into the side of your computer if you wanted to check your email.

Today, Wi-Fi's wireless connections make physical network cables a rarity. But that's just the beginning. Technological forces are converging to make a lot of other wires in our lives look like relics. 2018 might not be the year when every cord disappears from your house, but it could begin a new big phase of uncluttering.

It'll start with the device you likely spend the most time with every day: your phone. Plenty of phones have offered wireless charging for years, but Apple's embrace of the technology this year in the iPhone 8 and iPhone X sends a strong message to leery consumers and to phone makers on the fence: Come on in, the water's fine.

Apple's iPhone 8 and iPhone X can juice up with a wireless charging mat.

Apple's iPhone 8 and iPhone X can juice up with a wireless charging mat.

James Martin/CNET

Other wires that could be banished include your earbud cable, your laptop's power cord and maybe even your broadband connection to the internet. It's all part of the inexorable move to designs that are easier to install, maintain and use through untethering. That ultimate dream of a living room entertainment system with no cords is no longer so far-fetched.

"We've seen a trend over the last 10 years to remove any mechanical moving parts on the phone, to remove any compartment you can open," IHS Markit analyst Ian Fogg said. "At some point, we might see the removal of the data port, too, so there aren't any physical ports at all."

To be sure, wires aren't going away completely in our lifetimes, much less in 2018. They're just too useful for transferring data and power quickly, cheaply and reliably. For instance, you'll still need a line that connects your wireless charging pad to the outlet. But on a daily basis, the technology means you can just plop your phone or even your laptop onto a charging pad instead of fiddling with cables.  

This Ikea wireless charging lamp shows how wireless charging can declutter your desk or living room. An Apple iPhone 8 or Samsung Galaxy S8 will top up its battery when set on the lamp's base.

This Ikea wireless charging lamp shows how you can declutter your desk or living room. An Apple iPhone 8 or Samsung Galaxy S8 will top up its battery when set on the lamp's base.

Ikea Qi is key

Wireless phone charging had been a mess because of multiple standards. Nobody would want to set a phone on a charger in an office, coffee shop, hotel or car and find out it's incompatible. The industry now has mostly settled on one standard called Qi (pronounced "chee"). For example, the day after Apple announced in September that its new iPhones would use Qi, charging station maker Powermat announced that its wireless charging spots at Starbucks coffee shops would add compatibility with Qi.

Samsung supports Qi in its Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones. Furniture giant Ikea sells lamps with Qi wireless charging stations built in, and outside the house, the standard is in some cars from Ford, Audi, BMW, Toyota, Honda, Chrysler, Hyundai and Volkswagen.

Wireless charging exists for laptops too -- Dell's Latitude 7285, for example -- but that's a rarity at the moment. It's harder to supply enough power for a laptop, and the charging stations are more expensive: $200 in Dell's case.

Perhaps more interesting for laptop customers is a technology called WiGig that transmits data very rapidly over the air within a room. That can be handy for docking stations: When you flip open your laptop anywhere in a room, it wirelessly connects to a docking station that handles cabled connections to external hard drives, monitors, speakers and other devices.

Industry groups including the Wi-Fi Alliance and the IEEE are working on a second-generation WiGig technology, called 802.11ay, that should boost speeds and range and perhaps improve the technology for high-end virtual reality headsets that no longer are leashed to your computer. But the final version of WiGig 2.0 likely won't arrive until 2019.

Ta-ta, tangles

It's a marvel that our phones can deliver so many songs, podcasts, video chats and TV shows. But untangling your earbud wires first can be infuriating. For good or ill, several phone makers want to move us beyond that hassle by killing off the decades-old 3.5mm audio jack and steering us toward wireless Bluetooth audio connections.

Sure, you can still plug headphones into an Apple Lightning port or a Google Pixel 2USB-C port with the help of a dongle. But Apple would rather you buy a $159 set of wireless AirPods, and Google would steer you to its competing $159 Pixel Buds. Google doesn't even include earbuds in the Pixel 2 box.

Apple Airpods pipe music, podcasts and phone calls from your phone to your ears with a Bluetooth radio link, not wires. Expect more competitors as more phones without 3.5mm audio jacks arrive.

Apple Airpods pipe music, podcasts and calls from your phone to your ears with a Bluetooth radio link, not wires. Expect more competitors as more phones arrive without 3.5mm audio jacks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unfortunately, high-quality earbuds with Bluetooth can be expensive. They can be inconvenient to pair with your smartphone or laptop and can suffer from short battery life. You also have to worry about losing the charging case if you buy a premium set such as AirPods, Pixel Buds or Samsung's $200 Gear IconX wireless earbuds.

And another thing: "The quality of audio is less good than for a wired headset because audio is recompressed over the Bluetooth connection," Fogg said. The industry group working on Bluetooth has lowered power requirements and is working on better sound for music, but for now audiophiles should proceed with caution.

By 2022, however, the disappearance of 3.5mm audio jacks will help push us to buy 285 million "hearables" such as wireless earbuds, Juniper Research estimates. For many of us, that journey will begin next year.

Wire-free home broadband?

The next generation of cellular technology, referred to as 5G, could do wonders for removing the pesky coaxial cable around your house.

Verizon last month said it plans to begin selling 5G wireless service as a replacement for traditional home broadband in three to five cities in 2018, with the first being Sacramento, California. 5G networks promise to be about 10 to 100 times faster than existing LTE network connections and today's typical home broadband speeds.

AT&T is already testing 5G technology at businesses and residences in Austin and Waco, Texas, and in South Bend, Indiana, as part of a plan to offer 5G for home internet service. It's running at 1 gigabit per second right now, a data rate that a few years ago seemed almost like science fiction for broadband.

Radio signals from next-gen 5G networks can deliver gigabit broadband with no wires, but high-frequency signals may need something like this Nokia Bell Labs device to bring the signals indoors.Enlarge Image

Radio signals from next-gen 5G networks can deliver gigabit broadband with no wires, but high-frequency signals may need something like this Nokia Bell Labs device to bring the signals indoors.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Wireless broadband is a big deal. Think about this:  It means no installers taking up your entire day punching cables into your wall or routing from one room to another to get to your modem. Or, in the case of Verizon Fios, no one digging up the outside of your home to add a fiber-optic line.

But the high-frequency radio signals used by 5G broadband services have a hard time penetrating walls. So installation likely will be more complicated than just plugging in a networking box bristling with antennas.

Cutting even more cables

What we call wireless charging today isn't truly wireless. Take a look at what plugs the charging pad into the wall. The charging pads can be fiddly, too, requiring you to put your device in just the right place and maybe worry that notification buzzes will vibrate the device off center and stop the charge.

That's why some companies like Energous and Ossia want to do away with the wires altogether by beaming power over radio waves through a whole room.

"We want to have our first deployment sometime in the second half of 2018," Ossia Chief Executive Mario Obeidat said. That'll start with accessories like a battery case for your phone, but later will be directly integrated into phones and other devices like Wi-Fi routers that could send charging energy as well as data, he said.

Ossia's technology, called Cota, is powerful enough to charge a phone or two, even in use with the screen on, but not a laptop. "When we think about wireless power, it's in the home, in retail space, the office, in the car -- the places people congregate," he said.

Energous expects wireless charging transmitters with its WattUp technology toward the end of 2018 with a range of about three feet, though the first devices using WattUp charging pads should come early next year. In 2019, WattUp transmitters with a 15-foot range should arrive, CEO Steve Rizzone said.

One early WattUp market will be hearing aids that can charge while you're wearing them, Rizzone said. You'll also be able to set WattUp priorities, so, for example, it'll charge your wireless headphones while you're away then switch to your phone when you get home from work. Just don't expect a transmitter to keep a whole roomful of gadgets juiced.

Certification from the Federal Communications Commission is the last obstacle. "We believe we'll have this before the end of this year," Rizzone said.

So sure, wires will still have a place in our lives in 2018. But year by year, wireless technologies will keep making that place smaller.

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.

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