Your battery life sucks, and why it's your own fault

My company recently started using the Blackberry Torch as their standard mobile device. My views on this decision notwithstanding, the users seem to be happy with their shiny new touchscreen toys, and that’s really what my job is all about: keeping the users happy. One user, however, wasn’t so happy. She came storming in to my office (cubicle) with a dead device in hand.

“I got this phone earlier this week, and it’s already broken! I want a new one!”

“Have you tried plugging it in with the power adapter?”

“Yes, the power adapter works fine. I charged it Tuesday night.”

“It’s Friday…”

“Yes, and?”

“These phones really aren’t meant to hold a charge for longer than 24 hours, and that’s if you’re barely using it. You should try to get into the habit of charging your phone every night while you sleep, and you shouldn’t have a problem. “

The user was incredulous. “You mean it only lasts for a day? That’s ridiculous! My last phone went 2-3 days without needing a charge! I thought this was supposed to be an upgrade!”

Welcome to my world.

As I related this exchange to my coworkers and shared a laugh over the incessant naiveté of my company’s user base, I realized that my user had a point. When you think about it from her perspective (a very non-technical perspective), why in the world should battery life be decreasing as phone specifications increase? Any technical person knows the obvious answer – that increased computing power and screen size will drain battery power faster – but there is a core issue here that companies desperately need to address. On a mobile device, that is meant to be used for extended periods of time off of a power source, how can you get away with releasing a phone that barely makes it through the workday? Larry Page didn’t seem to think this was a problem, and publicly maintained that an Android phone should last a day on a charge. You can make all the excuses in the world, but the fact still remains that a movie has been released to theaters based on the fact that you could die because smartphone battery life sucks.

We have only ourselves to blame. We had no business allowing phone manufacturers and OS developers to dictate what our standards were for battery life. We are the consumer, and the consumer is always right. We valued power over function and opted to live with decreasing battery life until the situation slowly but steadily degraded into the dystopian battery life future that we live in today. Today, I keep my phone plugged in via USB at work, I have a car charger in each of my cars, and I keep multiple power adapters at home. I made that decision when I ordered my HTC EVO 4G a year ago, and while I love the power that the handset brings to the table, I have always considered the battery life to be unacceptable.

So, what happened? Why are companies dragging their feet when it comes to battery life? More importantly, is it the companies that are at fault for not scaling their batteries with their hardware, or is it developers using scarce battery life irresponsibly? According to Kevin Burden, mobile device research director at ABI Research,

“There are ways of improving cell phone battery life, but there are very few ways of improving the batteries themselves. Essentially, battery technology is governed by God — there are just no new elements showing up in the Periodic Table.”

Some may call that a copout, but it raises a good point: Battery technology is somewhat limited by natural restrictions. Fancy engineering work is required to get around the natural hurdles posed by available elements, and it’s a lot simpler to work on software innovations that work with the limits imposed by nature. While the technology that allows for fluid touchscreen UIs and dual-core mobile processors marches ever forward, it does so in spite of the lagging battery industry. Improving the actual battery would require a leap of innovation that doesn’t happen very often. Even then, that technology would have to be adapted to a cheap, mass-production environment that won’t cause the price of phones to fluctuate wildly. These are all factors that can, for the time being, be ignored if developers can make their applications power-efficient. This seems to be the most economical solution for now, but lithium-ion batteries are only improving incrementally, and a radical shift in electricity storage medium technology will eventually be required to put battery life back at a reasonable level.

However the industry decides to ameliorate the issue, there is one thing that absolutely needs to stop happening. I hear a lot of talk about decreasing CPU power, and generally taking out features to save battery life. There are plenty of ways that developers and manufacturers can extend battery life right now, without having to sacrifice feature quality. AMOLED screens have helped lower the battery footprint of displays, and software developers have a multitude of tools available to make their OS and applications more efficient at no substantial cost to the end user. Consumers need to reassess what they believe a decent battery life is, and demand that the manufacturers and developers improve the status quo.

How would you define a reasonable lifetime of a cell phone battery? Was my user correct in assuming that 2-3 days is acceptable, or is a day really all that’s necessary for the majority of smartphone users? The truth is, it really depends on the needs and function of each consumer and phone. If battery technology still stays stagnant as the rest of the phone gets more powerful, one possible scenario is that we will start to see a marked fragmentation in the current lineup of phones. As users start to realize that they will need more than 8 hours of battery life to get through a day, manufacturers will respond by introducing phones that are light on heavy application processing and focus more on mobile connectivity and ease of use. The model that RIM is slowly abandoning – the pure productivity phone—will return as manufacturers struggle to find ways to keep up battery life on phones that have become miniature computers. It’s definitely not the ideal outcome, and it still leaves those looking for power in their phones short on battery life, but unless a major breakthrough in battery tech happens soon, or developers learn to better harness scarce resources, it seems inevitable. And we let it happen.

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