March 16, 2010

Why can't I choose my battery?

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Batteries.

OK, that's not how it goes. But if it were made today, that's how it should go. Allow me to descend into wanton nerdery for a minute. My wife is thinking of joining the 21st century (or perhaps the 20th) and getting a cell phone she will carry around with her and actually use on a daily basis. As anyone who has tried to call her cell # can attest, it's rarely with her, and if it is the battery is probably dead. I have been a happy iPhone user for a couple of years now. If it weren't for Twitter I don't think she'd have much motivation to get with the times, but the idea of updating on the go (as was the original intent) appeals to her.

So we're looking at our options. The iPhone is nice and all, but depending on where we move to there may not be very good coverage with AT&T. Verizon seems much more likely to work out, so we're looking at Android based phones. But regardless of what we end up getting her, I am struck by our lack of choices. Oh sure, there are a number of good phones. And with something like the iPhone you can even pick how much storage space you want on it. But increasingly that's irrelevant.

I carry only a portion of my music on my phone. The rest I can stream from my home computer, or listen to internet radio like Pandora or Google documents abound, our email is all web based... on mobile devices cloud computing isn't some emerging thing, it's already here. I also drain my battery to near death over the course of every single day. So what matters isn't how much storage space you can give me, it's how long my battery will last while I access all that decentralized information. And that's where I run out of choices. I can choose the storage space, or color, or calling plan, etc of my phone, but I can't do a thing about the battery. Increasingly this is what matters. Batteries are the new storage space for mobile devices. Why doesn't anyone offer the option of paying extra for a more robust battery?

Perhaps it is that we lack choices in general when it comes to batteries. It seems like they are the bottleneck to electric cars, and that by and large we haven't seen a breakthrough battery technology in a long while. But I have to believe that there will be a market for battery choice. I also wonder how long it will take before we're as fluent in battery terminology (NiCd, Li-ion, cell number, energy density, etc) as we are in horsepower, CPU clock speed or other more traditional metrics of speed or power. In the near future I think the battery is going to be the key thing we care about in a lot of devices.  Now if they can just let me care about it in the next couple of months, that would be great.


  1. Yes, I think Twitter may be the main reason I want a cell phone.

  2. I believe electronic products currently have the best batteries they can produce. I agree that it is the bottleneck with smart phones these days.

    Twitter is a good point (facebook in my case), but the GPS is one of my favorite features, that, and reading the newspaper.

  3. My real problem isn't with battery capacity, exactly, but with power source flexibility. I don't think I actually care if my phone's battery carries only two hours worth of charge, as long as I can a) recharge it in significantly less time than it takes me to drain it and b) I can swap the battery when I need to. Not that I'm advocating going to disposable battery use, but if an iPhone (for example) had a replaceable battery and came with two, I could reasonably be able to keep one charged and available as a backup. As it is, I have chargers pretty much everywhere I spend any amount of time: Home, office, car, friends' houses. And I'm constantly charging the phone for 15-30 minutes at a time just to stay more or less above 40%.

    I'm not literate in battery tech (as you predict I'm sure I soon will be) but I don't think this much charging is actually good for the battery and I anticipate having to change it before the contract I have with AT&T expires, which is prohibitively expensive (or warranty-voiding) because they won't design a device where users can change the battery.