image: Kheng Guan Toh — 123rf

The unanswered challenge of short battery life

Enrique Dans
Oct 30, 2013 · 3 min read

For some years now, consumer electronics has been a major global industry. As portability has increased, battery life has become one of the major challenges: it is still far and away the bulkiest component in any smartphone or tablet, but still we discover, to our cost, that batteries do not even last a single day, sometimes leaving us without charge at the most inopportune moment.

As devices have become ever smaller, as with smartwatches, battery life becomes the key issue: increased processing capacity and demand for more and more functions from these types of gadgets impose huge pressure on battery consumption, which, along with the conceptual change involved in thinking of a watch as something that needs to be recharged each night, otherwise it will stop working at any moment, is a serious challenge.

Compared to the simplicity of the Pebble, the first relatively successful smartwatch, which came with an e-paper screen that was discreetly lit from behind activated by shaking the wrist, and that would remain charged for up to a week, devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear, which have very bright screens, a camera, and a huge range of functions, has largely been panned, with more than 30% of customers returning them. In the case of Google’s upcoming smartwatch, reduced battery consumption is cited as one of the factors that has required most work.

As lithium ion technology having presumably been exploited to its maximum potential, and with developments such as supercapacitors still some way off, I would say that the solution may well be found in areas such as the automobile industry.

One of the major breakthroughs made by electric car company Tesla has been swappable batteries, which allow users to fully charge their batteries at any of the company’s service stations in 75 minutes, or half an hour for journeys of less than two hundred kilometers, a process that can be done while driver and passengers eat and rest. Equally, the entire battery can be replaced in less than a minute, at an extra cost.

Simply changing the battery on my phone is something I have been doing for some time now: for several years now I have tended to avoid phones with non-accessible batteries. For each phone that I am thinking of using for a reasonable period of time I buy one or two extra batteries, and sometimes even an extra charging unit, and establish a routine that allows me to always have an extra battery with me that is fully charged. When the time comes, I simply open the phone and change the battery. Sadly, this also involves turning the thing off and then having to turn it back on again, which is a minor hassle, but could easily be avoided if manufacturers simply included a tiny auxiliary battery that lasted a few minutes.

So, why don’t phone manufacturers take up this idea of interchangeable batteries by making minor changes to the design of their phones that would allow users to simply lift off the back of the phone and push the dead battery out with a fully charged one, while the phone was still in use? This kind of new focus, along the lines that Tesla has adopted would certainly prove popular with those of us who are dependent on our phones and would prefer not to be fretting if we are delayed for whatever reason in getting home or to the car.

Despite our increased dependency on consumer electronics, battery life is holding back their development. In search of a solution to closed terminals and inaccessible batteries, perhaps the battery swap’s moment has come.

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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