iPhone battery life needs to get better, because Snapchat and Pokémon Go

When it comes to battery life on an iPhone or iPad, Apple has historically targeted roughly 10 hours of active internet use, though it can be a little more if you’re on Wi-Fi or have an iPhone Plus. Year after year, no matter how small or light the devices have become, battery life has stayed fixed to roughly 10 hours of active internet use. The problem is, what most people would consider “active internet use” has changed considerably in that time.

Back in 2007, when the original iPhone launched, “active internet use” primarily meant checking email and browsing the web. It relied on text being the dominant medium, apps being either first party or having incredibly constrained access to system resources, and the processor and radio racing to sleep as quickly and often as possible.

Today, “active internet use” means frequently checking Twitter and Instagram, which load and reload media constantly. Worse, it means checking Facebook and Snapchat, which create and consume vast amounts of media while constantly tracking location and staying active in the background far longer, and draining batteries much faster, than any reasonable app should allow.

And now it means playing Pokémon Go, which is built around having the screen on all the time, having location services firing all the time, and having the radios going all the time, even when the telemetry and signal aren’t great and they have to burn power to stay connected.

Current hyper-popular apps can drain Apple’s roughly 10 hours of battery life in just a few hours. That might make them bad apps, but they’re the bad apps people want to use.

And Apple and the iPhone need to evolve to handle them.

Bigger batteries

“Double the battery!” is almost as cliché as “Delete the bezels!”, but it’s an understandable reaction. Battery chemistry isn’t something everyone is familiar with, and so there’s a supposition that you can simply pump more power into an iPhone the way you pump more filling into a pastry. But, not so much.

  1. Batteries are thermal insulators. Do it wrong and the processor heats up and either wastes power and overheats or has to be ramped down hard to prevent it from overheating and wasting power.
  2. Batteries aren’t RF transparent. Do it wrong and radios have to amp up to stay connected, which also wastes power.
  3. Batteries are heavy. Do it wrong and you get a brick no one wants to hold, much less buy.
  4. Batteries that are too big or too dense are illegal to ship in many jurisdictions. That’s why iPad Pro fills its volume with speakers, not battery.

The magic of making a modern mobile device is getting everything to work in harmony, and that can include a bigger battery.

Apple has shown a willingness to get heavier before. iPhone Plus contains more battery for longer battery life, primarily because it can be spread over a larger surface area to mitigate things like weight and thermal. Both iPhones 6s, though, got slightly heavier to allow for 3D Touch and new gaskets and seals inside the case. iPad 3 got heavier to allow for Retina.

There will always be thermal, RF, weight, and legal issues to address, but getting a battery into an iPhone that’s big or otherwise capable enough to provide 10 hours of Facebook, Snapchat, or Pokémon Go-style internet use has to become the new normal.

Significant shaming

In a perfect world, Facebook, Snapchat, Pokemons Go and other extremely popular, extremely resource intensive apps would work with Apple to make sure each and every process respected the customer and did its best to be as power efficient as possible. The reality is, while I’m sure those apps care about power efficiency, power efficiency doesn’t increase downloads or prolong active engagement. Features do. And the features that use and abuse power do it best.

It’s been years and Facebook still hasn’t really fixed its power consumption — it’s even had periods where it was made significantly worse, allegedly due to the misuse of background processes. Snapchat keeps adding new and intensive features as well.

The reality is, they’re incredibly popular apps, they’re not going anywhere, and there’re limits to what Apple’s cajoling, friendly and even not-so-friendly, can accomplish.

But public shaming … Well, that can work miracles.

A few years ago, with OS X Mavericks, Apple introduced power consumption warnings to the Macs menu bar. It singled out apps that were using significant energy. The unofficial name for the feature was “battery shaming”, and when companies like Adobe first heard about it, they weren’t happy.

Battery shaming takes no prisoners—Apple’s Safari browser will appear in there just like Google’s Chrome—but that’s exactly the point.

Previously, any and all battery life complaints would have gone straight to Apple. With battery shaming, though, customers got far more accurate and deserving targets for their frustration and internet rage. It forced companies to clean up or suffer the consequences of people knowing, for example, much better battery life could be had simply by using the native browser.

iOS 8 brought a similar feature to iPhone and iPad. In Settings, you can now see which apps are using the most power and, with a tap, how much of that power is being used in the foreground (while on screen) vs. in the background.

But that’s as far as Apple has taken it so far. There no similar, easy to access list of “Apps using excessive energy”.

There’s no shaming.

It’s be great if the Battery screen is Setting showed those apps right up front. Better still, if you could 3D Touch the battery icon in the status bar and see them from anywhere.

More aggressively, there could be an opt-in for “Notify me when an app is using significant energy” that sends an alert and has the system check for rogue processes or simply lock it in a power saver box.

That would help encourage everyone, including Apple’s own Photos app, to be as respectful as possible of our power. Because anytime anything goes wrong and our battery life starts to drain, we’ll know exactly who to blame.

Power packs

Late last year, Apple released the Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6s. Thanks to its design and integration, it minimized interference and didn’t make the iPhone think it was plugged in, so neither radio power nor background processing ramped up. That made it much, much more efficient and effective than sleeker, bigger battery cases.

While Apple didn’t give it the messaging or support it needed to be really understood, even by reviewers, it showed the company was paying attention to the increased demands of modern mobile lifestyles, and looking at creative ways to extend battery life.

Battery packs used to be for the early adopters. Now they need to be for everyone. Next-generation Smart Battery Cases for both the 4.7- and 5.5-inch iPhones would be terrific, not just for tech journos at trade shows or frequent travelers, but for everyone going out for a Pokémon hunt or camping trip, Snapchatting their life’s story, or trying to last through a camping trip.

Whether they work over the Lightning port or we get iPad Pro-style Smart Connectors on iPhones, the ability to have a power doubler available on-demand is compelling. Your phone stays as light and pocketable as possible most of the time, but with the slip of some casing or click of some magnets, it becomes a battery beast.

New normal

What makes for 10-hours of battery life while using the internet is different today than it was just a few years ago. People aren’t simply checking email and surfing the web anymore. They’re spending vastly more time in battery-hungry apps like Facebook, Snapchat, Maps, Photos, and Pokemon Go than ever before, which means they’re running out of power faster than every before.

Apple can solve for this with bigger batteries, more severe software shaming, and power packs made for the mainstream.

Better yet, they can really solve it by doing all three.

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