The next big thing in tech ought to be better batteries

One of the trickiest problems with our Apple devices these days is keeping them all charged.

apple watch charger
Credit: Apple

Over the last couple weeks, as I spent some time on the road, I noticed that one accessory has become more or less ubiquitous among smartphone users: the external battery pack. Once carried mainly by the tech savvy, the battery pack has become a must-have. When I was at the Gen Con gaming convention, they seemed no less common than a t-shirt with a nerdy joke on it.

Some of that recent omnipresence no doubt stems from the phenomenon that is the battery-chomping Pokémon Go, but that’s really just throwing kerosene on the fire that is mobile device usage. With all of us tethered to our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and wearable devices, power and where to find it has become a major concern.

Power up

There’s a joke that’s long been passed around, an edited version of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Shaped as a pyramid, with the most fundamental needs at the base, some wag had added beneath the bottommost layer—which includes physiological needs like air, shelter, water, and food—an additional item: Wi-Fi. Later that joke got expanded further, with someone adding another layer: battery life.

maslow 2014 revised

Not to dissect a joke too much, but as always, there’s truth in humor: the broad adoption and widespread deployment of high-speed cellular networking has actually made hunting for Wi-Fi access less of an issue—since you can get online virtually *anywhere*—while the power hungry nature of phones’ data connections has simultaneously ramped up the need for better battery life.

And yet, while battery life does get discussed as a spec of every new device, battery tech is largely unchanged in the modern era, with minor evolutions coming in dribs and drabs. Contrast that to the huge revolutions we’ve seen in going from wired network connections to wireless, or the rise of the smartphone, and battery technology often seems like it’s stuck in the slow lane.

A battery of challenges

Part of the problem is that when it comes to selling improvements to technological devices, battery life is far from “sexy.” But as pedestrian as it may seem, I can’t think of another area where a major improvement would bring quite as much real, meaningful change.

Another, far larger part of the challenge is that improving battery life is simply a hard problem. The prevailing lithium-ion technology that’s been in heavy use for the last 20 years or so has been continuously refined, but not yet dethroned. The batteries in our iPhones and Apple Watches are largely pretty similar to the batteries that were in our iPods and PowerBooks.

usbc batteries group shot pile bg focus Glenn Fleishman

USB-C batteries will let you charge a MacBook as well as portable devices, but changing what batteries connect to isn't as useful as a real advancement in batteries themselves would be. 

There is hope, though. For example, one technology developed by a team out of MIT is prepping lithium metal batteries that could double the capacity of existing technology—or provide the same capacity in half the space. I have to believe Apple—and every other hardware manufacturer—is watching that particular business with some interest.

Improved capacity is especially important to space-limited devices like the Apple Watch. A recent report from Bloomberg said that the biggest obstacle in bringing LTE connectivity to the Watch was that the chips simply ate up too much power. Likewise, Apple execs confessed earlier this year that part of the sluggish performance on the original Watch was due to an ultra-conservative approach to power management, ensuring that the device would run all day on a single charge. (As they admitted, they overshot the mark quite a bit.) The smaller that device gets—and we all know how Apple loves making things smaller—the more of a challenge battery capacity is going to be.

Look ma, no cables

Power is also quickly becoming one of the few things for which we still require a physical cable. If the next iteration of iPhone does indeed dispatch with the headphone jack in favor of wireless headphones, then power will certainly be the most significant reason to connect anything to your phone or tablet.

That’s definitely a frustration, especially when traveling, where I often feel like I need to pack a mass of writhing cables that makes that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark look tame by comparison. A few months back, I ruminated on the idea of wireless charging coming to Apple products, and while I stand by such a development, longer-lasting batteries could help offset some of that need.

There’s plenty of reason to think that Apple wants to push battery power forward—if not just for its existing devices, most of which use batteries, but also for the rumored arenas into which the company might next be venturing. Given all the rumors about Apple investigating the automobile industry, I have a hard time believing that any eventual car—should one appear—would not be electric in nature. Of course, you’ll probably still need to plug it in to charge it.

For now, anyway.

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