The Paperweight Problem

The Case for Tiered Shut Down

I find few things more frustrating than reaching into my pocket expecting my phone and instead, pulling out a very expensive paperweight. As people have grown increasingly reliant on their phones for everything from transportation (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Maps) to payments (e.g. Apple Pay, Venmo), the idea of having a phone go from fully functional to fully useless in one fell swoop is becoming increasingly indefensible. An entire industry has emerged to make backup batteries for people’s phones, cameras, tablets, and other gadgets, but this is a half-fix at best. (I personally carry a backup battery pack in my backpack and it mostly gets the job done; however, it itself has become just another device to remember to charge that could run out of juice while I’m out.) Of course the ideal solution would be inventing (much) better batteries; however, barring a major breakthrough in chemistry, there are engineering and design decisions that can go a long way toward mitigating the paperweight problem.

Anyone who took high school calculus in the last decade remembers the low battery warning on the TI graphing calculators, but the idea of reserve power never materially migrated to consumer electronics. That is, until the Apple Watch.

Description of Apple Watch Power Reserve

In many ways this makes sense, most people can get through a day on a single charge. And, thankfully, if a phone or camera runs out of charge, though it’s an annoyance not to have it, it’s not much of an inconvenience to keep in a pocket or purse — out of sight out of mind. However, if an Apple Watch powers down prematurely it remains firmly and prominently affixed to the wearer’s wrist.

This reminds me of the adage about how an escalator can never really be out of order, only temporarily stairs. Given that the Apple Watch occupies a very visible place, it was important for Apple to make sure that in the event that it began to run out of battery it would become temporarily a watch, not temporarily a (foolish looking) bracelet. Though restricting a user’s ability to access all the features of their device through a tiered shut down may seem counterintuitive, by carefully selecting which features get to continue running on reserve power (and admittedly I do not know the engineering constraints) the usable life of the product can actually be significantly prolonged. How much more compelling would Apple Pay be as a wallet replacement, for example, if you knew you could continue making purchases long after most of the functionality of your phone ceased?

As technology — and with it batteries — permeates all aspects of daily life the paperweight problem needs to be addressed. Designing products with reserve batteries or that shut down in tiers would give consumers the peace of mind to know that the critical features of their devices would comfortably make it through a day. And with increased comfort, technology would be able to spread even faster and wider, further changing the way people interact with and rely on their gadgets. The Power Reserve feature on the Apple Watch is a promising first step to bringing this type of design to mainstream consumer electronics. It will be interesting to see how and if other companies implement similar systems.