A Chinese cell phone now comes equipped with a solar-powered phone charger, according to several blog postings Monday.
Details are scarce on the S168 handset charger - including which company actually manufactures it - but according to the heavily sourced www.gophone.com.tw, it appears the solar-panel charger is approximately the same size as the phone. The solar charger can fuel up on both sun rays and indoor lighting, according to the Web site.
The mysterious launch draws attention to the burgeoning niche of solar-powered phone chargers and efforts to get them into mainstream hands.
For the most part, such phone chargers have been relegated to emergency workers, military personnel and rugged outdoors aficionados.
For example, San Diego, California-based Innergy Power Corp. sells a solar travel pack that fits into a binderlike container. Once laid flat, the solar modules can use the sun's rays to recharge devices like cell phones and PDAs.
Weighing in at 2.9 pounds and with a $140 price tag, the 15-watt Solar Binder Pack is not going to replace the traditional cell-phone charger anytime soon.
Soldius, based in the Netherlands, also has a binderlike solar charger for cell phones and other small electrical devices. It's not much bigger than an iPod when closed. The sleek white charger weighs 3 ounces and costs about $100.
The price doesn't match traditional wall chargers that can start as low as $6, or car chargers that cost around $50 or less. A traditional charger is "probably faster," said industry analyst Todd Kort, who recently worked for Gartner before striking out on his own.
For now, Kort sees the solar-powered cell phone-charging market relegated to the domain of smaller companies. "I don't think you will see the Motorolas and Nokias coming out with these products. It's going to be a niche market for a while," he said.
Part of the reason is few people find themselves deep in the Australian outback (with reception), desperately needing to charge a cell phone.
Still, eco-conscious consumers who want to reduce their carbon footprints could drive the market forward, Kort said. Even though they will only be able to charge a mobile phone from a windowsill, "there is a psychic reward to that, as opposed to just sitting there and watching the world go by," he said.
But such feel-good motivations aren't enough to move the masses.
In an attempt to get more solar chargers to customers, Working Assets, a socially responsible wireless and long-distance phone service company based in San Francisco, in August began offering a free Better Energy Systems solar-powered phone charger with the purchase of an LG 150 flip phone.
Called the Solio, the hybrid charger takes power from the sun or a wall socket. It has three blades that fan out to harness the light, weighs in at 5.6 ounces and costs about $100.
Although Working Assets wouldn't divulge figures, the company said the solar freebee has triggered a small increase in new customers.
"It's just another choice that people make with their dollars to help build a better world," said Claudine Zap, a Working Assets spokesperson.
Zap said she doesn't know whether the prices are low enough to attract a large market, but pointed out that consumers pay more for their iPods.
Folks are clearly willing to pay a premium for the lifestyle that iPods offer. Could a solar-powered cell-phone charger rise to the same cool status?
Maybe not. But at least the solar charger can power that iPod.