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Fooling the public

19/4/09

The website, The Register. ran a reader survey, they asked their high-flying, tech savvy readership what was the most important requirement in a mobile phone. Was it sync? Email? Web browsing? No none of these. Some of you are smirking and thinking “text and voice” but it wasn’t that either.

It was battery life.

A flat phone is a brick. Indeed it’s worse, there is little that is more frustrating than staring at a blank screen. Battery technology has come on incredibly. The first hand portable phone with a 1000mAh battery was the long forgotten analogue child of a partnership between Swatch and Nokia.  It weighed over 400g.

That was in 1993. Today a phone with a 1000mAh battery weighs a little over 120g. Several things have changed. The first is chemistry. That 1993 phone was Nickel Cadmium, we’ve evolved through Nickel Metal Hydride, Lithium Ion and now Lithium Polymer. Another change is that the technology is different. GSM is a Time Division system, the phone is only transmitting an eighth of the time. In 1993 there were fewer than a million people in the UK with mobile phones. Today there are over 40 million so cell sites are a lot closer together. This means all the phones transmit at much lower power. Finally phones have got a lot better at managing power, especially with 3G and with improved power amplifiers.

So while the Swatchkia had a standby time of  a day or so , a modern mobile has a standby time of a couple of weeks. Well, not an iPhone, but a normal mainstream device like a Nokia 6700. Even that has a biggish screen and a 5 megapixel camera.

In sixteen years the chemistry has improved something over threefold, but the consumer experience has improved nearer to twentyfold. This has hoodwinked consumers into thinking that there is some kind of Moores Law at play, and in a couple of years batteries will be twice as good.

In phones it doesn’t matter. Indeed a phone at 100g with a week of standby and 10 hours of talk time might be fine. The big-screen smart phones are a little way to go but are not far off.

Where it matters is in cars. There the gulf between what is available and acceptable is huge. The poster child for the electric car is the Tesla, which the Tesla website goes to great pains to explain is not an Electric Elise, but which is very, very similar, made in the same factory, to the same design principals and looks pretty much the same. A Tesla costs nearly three times as much as a petrol powered Elise and weighs nearly twice as much. It’s range is more restricted, not just because it only does 200 miles to a charge but because you need three phase, 80amp power to charge it in any sensible time at the other end, so really your range is halved. You have to get home to charge it. And a flat car is worse than a flat phone.

Into this comes the Chinese phone battery manufacturer BYD which has shot to fame by launching a car and getting investment from Warren Buffet. They use a Ferrous Ion technology which they imply is less likely to catch fire than lithium ion, more power dense and a lot, lot cheaper.

With our sensible mobile phone heads on we can see that this is the next step after lithium polymer and no great shakes. But to the environmentalists, who have already wrecked our economies by restricting investment in road and airport infrastructure, it’s the miracle battery we have all been waiting for.

Perhaps we need to take some of the blame for this by making phones just too good.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here.
Follow me on Twitter here.

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