Mobile Batteries Taking a Beating

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 5 to 10 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 10 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 (NASDAQ: RIMM) 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 10 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 (NASDAQ: AAPL)
iPhone 3G users if published reports are valid.

Users are expressing dissatisfaction over what’s been officially cited by
research firm Gartner (NYSE: IT) 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.”

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