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Monday, January 31, 2011

Next Gen Batteries, where art thou?

Three months ago I wrote this post on how much I loved my MacBook Air,  largely because of it's 6 hour plus battery life.  Now I sit here, not even 90 days later, and this same machine fully charged lasts under two and a half hours.

Before

After

Incredible bummer? Yes.  Surprising?  Not in the least.  This is the third MacBook Air I've owned and none of the batteries in any of these machines can hold a decent charge anymore.  I'm too lazy to go wait in the insane lines at the Apple Genius Bar to get these replaced.

But it's got me thinking about batteries in general, and how important they are to the mobile internet.

Really, batteries are the lynchpin to the future of the internet and our connected lives.

It's one technology that I haven't seen improve exponentially in my career so far.    There's always a huge huge tradeoff in functionality of product versus battery life, and the consumer electronics industry needs to get past that.

I look at the best Android phones today like the Nexus S and see the same problem that's existed for years:  A state of the art mobile phone can't make it 24 hours of normal use without a charge.

I think about working with mobile phones for the last ten plus years and things haven't really improved.  In 2003 the Sony Ericsson P900 was introduced which was really a state of the art smartphone at the time, and its batteries would only last 12 hours or so per charge.   It's the same now with the Nexus S.  Why hasn't this improved?

Actually, I guess what I am saying is that I'm sure that the capabilities of these batteries have improved, but they've only kept pace with, not exceeded, the needs of the functionality increases of the devices.  Brighter, more colorful screens, Wi-Fi, 3g/4g and Bluetooth all at the same time, faster processors - the demands of mobile devices have surely become more demanding as well.

What's difficult to know is how much of this "keeping pace" are hardware optimizations and how many are software optimizations.  The first Wi-Fi phones put out by HTC were absolutely horrible at knowing when to use and not to use the radio, but OS releases throughout the life of those phones made things better without changing the hardware.

There are a ton of hacks like Tasker on Android that can make things a whole lot better, but these shouldn't be necessary.  They are patches on the real problem:  our batteries can't handle the "normal" use cases we need today for connected devices.

I actually have another post brewing about why I still use an iPhone as my primary device.   To spoil that  post, among other minor things, it's the battery.   My iPhone can actually keep a charge for my entire waking day without plugging it into a charger.  Sure, the tradeoff is that the multitasking is a bit weak but it's actually functional and not dead.

I could continue on with this litany of failed battery use cases and how we are patching it, and I'm sure everyone reading this has their own disappointing battery story to share as well.   I see plenty of my colleagues carrying an extra battery with them and think that a replaceable battery is a feature - but I don't necessarily agree, and if I have to carry around an extra battery, what's the point of making a device as slim and lightweight as possible?

It seems to me there should be tons of VC money being poured into solving this hardware problem.   Maybe there is, but I don't see it. There's money being spent on faster charging and other tangential solutions that perhaps gets us part way there, but doesn't seem to solve the real user issue.

I'm going to watch this space a little more and see what develops.  Feel free to educate me if I'm off base here.
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