Bad batteries, free of charge

Opinion

Bad batteries, free of charge

It would be a gross understatement to say that mobile technology has moved forward quickly. It’s no revelation, sure - but it is true. Despite the awful cliche, there is no getting away from the fact that we’ve been quickly (and for most us, involuntarily) propelled into an age of massive, broad, technical achievement as active participants. Make no mistake - this is the industrial revolution on steroids - and the resulting social and economic impact is categorically impossible to quantify.

To dredge up a classic (and maybe, tired) example, let’s take the tech advances made since the turn of the century. We’ve collectively watched mobile phones turn from triple-feature, antenna wielding dumbbells into slick, slim, touchscreen driven multimedia centres. Modern smartphones have so much more computing power than the system that took Apollo 11 to the moon just 45 years ago that it’s hard to imagine both devices were even built on the same planet, let alone in the same era. Nearly every aspect of computing and mobile technology has been mercilessly dragged kicking and screaming into an internet, multimedia and mobile obsessed age. And it’s not only consumers who have enjoyed the benefits of such well engineered technology. While the mobile device sector is a cut-throat, notoriously expensive industry to enter into successfully (see the Ubuntu Edge kickstarter project - an attempt at crowdsourcing funding for a Unix based smartphone that ‘only’ managed to raise $12m of it’s ‘$32m-to-be-viable’ target) the companies that have the bones to make their products successful have built mammoth levels of wealth. Apple were recently reported to have a larger bank balance than the United States government. Repeat after me - a business with more accessible cash than America.

A phone that bends? So what?

In such a remarkable time for technology, phones aren’t actually even telephones anymore. They are HD media streaming, Internet connected, GPS driven, photo taking, app loaded entertainment and communications fondleslabs. There is a software implementation (‘app’) for basically everything that can be considered useful (or not, as the case may be) driven by a new, multi-billion dollar appetite for rich media, entertainment and social networking experiences. Every new product release, from every major player, champions a newer, faster, more outrageously innovative set of features than the last. The industry is currently abuzz with the revelation that the next Samsung phones have flexible screens. In what situation do I need to bend my phone into a circle? We now have phones with facial and fingerprint recognition features, that track our eye movement to automatically scroll content. We’ve reached a sort of technology-for-technology’s sake, spaghetti western style standoff between the market’s key players and we’re dying to pick an allegiance and give them our money.

In spite of all of that, I’ve hit a point of apathy where I don’t really care much for it anymore. That’s because in the wake of all of the industry’s amazing advances, one thing has trailed horribly behind everything else. The hike in processing power, memory and graphics acceleration has come at the cost of battery life that now barely spans a single day when you know, you have to use your phone. It almost overrides the whole brilliance of the achievement.

The million dollar question

I need to know why battery life on a mobile device that fundamentally needs to power itself isn’t a priority. I need to know why I can’t use my phone for one day without it turning into an expensive paperweight. I actually own a Nexus 4, which I think is an excellent phone - but the battery life is terrible. And let’s be absolutely clear - this is not an isolated case. You know what else the battery life is awful on? Every model of iPhone. All of the Samsung S series. The recent HTC devices. BlackBerry devices are marginally better (and come with the rather brilliant facility of using removable batteries - so you can keep a couple spare and just swap them out when they die), but their situation is sort of complex and expensive at the moment. Do you know what the battery life was amazing on? My 2001 era Nokia 5110. Eleven days of battery life. Battery life on my last three phones have been poor to the point that last year I actually started carrying around a separate (and weighty) multi usb-port battery pack in my bag in case of emergencies. I carry a generator to support a frankenstein-esque combination of technologies that when combined, are woefully underpowered. It’s a bizarre situation that makes me far angrier than anybody else I know, and I’m not quite sure why. I don’t want a thinner phone. My current phone is 9mm thick. Making it thinner benefits me in literally no conceivable way. I don’t need to slot it through a tiny gap at any point, or use it to cut food. I do, however, need it to stay on.

I can already hear you telling me that the comparisons I’m drawing are unfair, and I can’t say that I particularly agree, because that isn’t my point. It’s just not good enough to have a mobile device that is only ‘sort of’ mobile because it can’t handle eight hours of use. It’s mobile. It needs to be functional and useful when mobile. I’m not talking about reaching legendary 5110 standards. But I shouldn’t need to disable bluetooth, 3G, push notifications or screen brightness to save power. That’s the equivalent of buying a Ferrari that can only take a litre of fuel at a time. That beautiful prancing horse logo is only going to get you so far - until you come to a grinding, graceless halt in a bad part of town. So much potential...

Battery life as a feature

So to clarify, I’m basically uninterested if some company builds a phone that’s a jetpack, a teleportation device, and a military-grade laser rifle that sends a witty tweet when you hit a target. I don’t really care if the phone is waterproof, paper thin, and doubles up as a diamond-edged self defence system. I just need the phone to stay alive for more than a day because that is how time, and things, work.

In essence, our expectations should be changing. Battery life (or at least software and hardware energy efficiency) shouldn’t be a supporting technology anymore, but a feature. A core feature. The responsibility falls on hardware manufacturers, battery manufacturers, and software houses equally - energy consumption needs to be considered properly. For any product teams that might have had the misfortune to stumble upon this article: I implore you - please don’t add one more biometric, sensor driven, ‘smart’ feature unless the phone can actually run it without emptying itself. Let’s just try and keep these things on first, shall we?