Batteries Lag Behind Device Evolution

By Judy Mottl

August 21, 2008

Advancements in software applications and higher-bandwidth connectivity needs for mobile devices mean greater drains on batteries. Will new technologies ever catch battery life up to user demand?

Mobile device advancements hit the news daily, spawning every aspect of communications except for one critical area: the battery.

Yes, we're talking about that small metallic element that plays a crucial role in making smartphones fulfill their productivity promise while under increasing stress due to more robust software and higher-bandwidth connectivity that demand more power.

"It's a slow technology to evolve, with just five to ten percent improvement per year," Ken Dulaney, Gartner analyst, told InternetNews.com. "Manufacturers have tried to make better ones, but barring the development of a tiny nuclear power generator for mobile devices there isn't much they can do," he said.

That's because battery development is a complex science involving chemistry. "There's the periodic table and just so many elements, and we've done about as much as can do with that aspect," Jerry Hallmark, Motorola's manager of energy system technologies for mobile devices, told InternetNews.com.

Hallmark explained that the basic chemistry of today's lithium-ion batteries used in high-end smartphones and mobile devices has been around for 20 years. While some standards will come into play, the battery's expected power growth will increase only about 20 to 25 percent before flattening out in the next few years.

Alternative technologies range from solar-powered options to fuel cells, the latter of which holds the promise of providing double the power and quick refuel capabilities. But the hurdles aren't small, as scaling fuel cells into small devices isn't easy, Hallmark said.

"I've been working on this for ten years, and there are a lot of issues such as the need to get oxygen into the cell and get created water vapor out of the device--but it's a very compelling option," said Hallmark, adding that fuel cells will require several more years of research.

In the meantime, Motorola as well as other handset makers, network providers and application developers are all looking to build energy-efficient elements in trying to work around today's battery limitations.

One analyst noted that Research In Motion (RIM) is considered a leader in this realm given its BlackBerry platform was built with battery energy as a primary focus.

"RIM has done a really good job at optimizing its systems to get very good battery efficiency and their battery is a hallmark in that sense," Jack Gold, analyst at, J.Gold Associates, told InternetNews.com.

RIM's BlackBerry now represents one in every ten smartphones sold in the United States, according to a recent report released from Strategy Analytics.

Yet the BlackBerry isn't completely immune from power-draining features and increased network speed, which can siphon energy fast.

"You can access the Web, watch television and movies, listen to music and do so many wonderful things, but if the battery is dead when you need to make a call you are in trouble," telecom analyst Jeff Kagan said.

"Battery life should have improved during the last several years," Kagan told InternetNews.com "It hasn't. This is one area that has seemed to be ignored."

What that means, he said, is that everyone's charging devices much more than they'd like to do these days, including BlackBerry users.

That group of rechargers also now includes new Apple  iPhone 3G users if published reports are valid.

Users are expressing dissatisfaction over what's been officially cited by research firm Gartner as a too-weak and short iPhone battery life. In fact a recent report noted that the device won't make it through a typical workday, which doesn't bode well for an enterprise play.

Plus, Apple embeds its battery, making it inaccessible for replacement. While that approach provides a more flexible design, it actually does little to enhance battery strength.

Motorola had taken a similar route years ago, Hallmark noted, but soon realized the minor benefits didn't outweigh the negative user experience.

Apple, which did not return calls for this story, isn't alone, though, in dealing with battery complaints. The issue of battery fatigue is fostering design and feature trade-offs on every handset put on the market, according to experts.

"Batteries have always been lacking and always behind the device evolution," Ryan Reith, an IDC analyst, told InternetNews.com. Currently testing the 3G iPhone, which Reith said is poor as far as battery strength, Reith said user wants are a primary reason batteries haven't been able to keeping pace.

"People want the larger displays, they want the 3G radio connectivity and that all demands power," said the analyst, noting that companies are researching better display technologies that could reduce power consumption.

"Some groups are looking at using mirrored light and even solar energy in reducing the power drain with displays," Reith said, adding that handset makers "are spending a lot of research and development money with partners on improving battery life."

"It's the double-edge sword in that users want things but there are trade-offs," the analyst said. "Nirvana would be a device staying powered for days. That would be a huge success story in this industry," he said.

But that success won't be happening anytime soon, according to experts. In a bit of an ironic comment, Gold noted that while batteries haven’t advanced as quickly as mobile devices the hardware element has certainly impacted user behavior.

"Consider that four or five years ago you could charge a cell phone and it would stay powered for a week," he said. "Now you're lucky to get a full day."

Article adapted from InternetNews.com



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