I’ve got a problem with my cell phone. I have a Nexus 6P and I love it. Because it’s a google product, it gets regular updates unlike about every other android based smartphone sold in the world. It’s got a headphone jack, which is hugely important to me because I regularly connect it to old audio tech that uses stereo jacks. I could rant and rave for quite a long time about the Apple led blackballing of the headphone jack. That conversation may actually spiral into another article about how some technology withers and some is evergreen. But back to my problem. My challenge is that my phone recently started just shutting down. It’s always a really inconvenient hard stop after it hits about 30% charge on the battery. Actually it can do it at higher or lower battery levels. In watching the behavior closely, it seems to happen if I do something that causes an additional drain on the battery, say turning on the camera. That’s what makes it so inconvenient, using the phone causes it to stop and shut down. A quick search on a few forums later and I learned i’m not alone. There is a flaw in the design of the battery system. After a certain age, the batters degrade to the point where they can’t handle voltage spikes anymore and the phone reads the battery as zero charge and shuts down. Since my phone is out of warranty I had to shop around to get a replacement. I found a place about a half hour away who will replace my phone battery for the low low price of $50 plus tax.
I could get another phone, but i’m very frugal, and there is no reason to get another phone if mine has the latest updates, which by the way is the whole reason why carriers don’t update your phone software. They love you to come into the store and sign up for new payment plans on new phones that keep you locked down as customer. Cell phone contracts and cell phones locked to a single carrier should be illegal, but again, that’s another article for another day. I also want to keep my headphone jack and until I can find a phone that has one and will get google updates on day one for a number of years i’m sticking with what I got. I want to hold off on living the dongle life until I absolutely have to.
The core issue is that I have a device. The device is hugely important to me for every manner of activity from communications, to productivity, to entertainment. The device sits at the intersection of work and life and it literally lives and dies based on it’s battery. That device is not alone, batteries are coming to everything and they are hugely limited, sometimes artificially so. Most recently all of the conspiracy theories about Apple gimping their phone’s performance came out, and it turns out it’s only partially a conspiracy theory. The original theory was that Apple did it to try and get their customers to upgrade to the virtually guaranteed new model every year. Turns out that Apple is purposefully slowing their phones because they are trying to better manage the degrading battery. That being said i’m sure avoiding a design more friendly to battery swapping is, in part, because they don’t mind the revenue that comes from the annual upgrade cycle.
It’s not just phones, batteries are everywhere. They are in our doorbells, our watches, our work productivity devices, our children’s toys, just everywhere. Elon Musk built a ‘gigafactory’ which is his term for the world’s largest battery factory. He did it because he needs lots and lots of batteries for the his Tesla electric cars. As anyone paying attention has realized, what started as the gas crisis leading into the success of the Prius has created the mainstream acceptance of alternative fueled vehicles. Alternative fueled Vehicles really means electric vehicles that are just mobile battery packs. The Tesla and it’s 100% electric ilk may have arguably dubious benefits now but they will be the mainstream at some point. Musk isn’t a transportation barron, he’s a battery barron. He understands that the weakening power infrastructure, the limited supply of fossil fuels, and the increase in devices that need electricity is creating an inflection point in history that’s based around batteries. He who controls the most batteries wins.
Battery Technology Sucks
As I alluded to earlier, rechargeable batteries have a limited number of recharges in them. As they age they lose their ability to hold a charge or deal with voltage spikes. Also, we haven’t been able to increase how much energy the batteries can hold. The battery life increases we’ve seen in cars and smart phones and every other device has less to do with the changing of the batteries but the shrinking of everything else around the batteries allowing more space for larger batteries. As far as I can see the biggest innovation in this space has to do with fast charging and even that has more to do with the management of power than the actual battery tech.
We’ve had batteries for over 200 years, the last hundred of which has seen tremendous scientific enlightenment and industrial innovation. We understand physics very well and batteries are based on the laws of physics. I will not be the person who says breakthroughs aren’t possible but I don’t think we will be seeing any real changes to batteries in the next several decades. At least not like the changes we’ve seen to what became possible with the world changing innovations that came from the integrated circuit. I could be mistaken, I hope I am, but honestly, I would bet more on the laws of physics than my faith in the inventiveness of humanity. Bottom line is that we are stuck with this sucky technology that’s becoming more and more important as we move through life so like anything that’s limiting, we need to work around it.
Right now we aren’t set up for batteries everywhere. This isn’t permanent. Humanity is pretty good at modifying our environment to meet our needs. It may be hard for most people living in the suburbs to visualize it, but at one point not too long ago we didn’t have gas stations on every corner. At one point they didn’t even exist. Still it takes a while to change everything. Forward thinking organizations are already making the change. For example Starbucks gets it. They have tons of powered USB jacks built into their new store designs. Other organizations, normal ones if you will, don’t. There is a cantina that just opened by my house. I’m close with the owner. He’s got a really cool LED lit bar he put a ton of effort into. It’s beautiful but unfortunately it has zero USB or power jacks built in or even close to where the customers will be sitting with their battery powered devices. This is the kind of architectural change that’s going to take a generation to really take hold.
Speaking of generations, battery awareness as second nature is also a generational thing. My daughter, at only three years old talks about her tablet needing to be charged every time she shuts it off.
She, along with her entire generation will be *ahem* hard wired for batteries. Compare this to one of my closest friends who never remembers to recharge her phone so she is either missing communications or searching for a charger.
As an aside, battery Access is another problem that isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Cell phones are a lot like hotel rooms. The lower cost rooms from the overnight hotels are much more practical. You check into a smallish practical lobby, you get a free internet, you get a breakfast in the morning. The bland workout room only has an elliptical, a treadmill, and a universal weight machine. The higher end convention hotels check in area is a marble covered homage to luxury. The hotel charges for internet in different areas. The gym is inside a beautiful glass and mirror filled room with TV’s on every surface and multiples of every single piece of equipment imaginable. It even has a table with fancy towels neatly bundled so you can conveniently wipe off your sweat. The convention hotel breakfast option is extensive but also cost a ton of money at the in hotel restaurant. Lower cost cell phones are the same way. They have a basic processor, an acceptable screen, and a removable battery. The sleek and beautiful high end phones have amazing power, gorgeous screens and are comically slim slabs that can’t be taken apart, well not unless you pay someone $50 or $100. I’m honestly not sure if this is something that will go away or if battery service will become another thing that separates the classes. Maybe it’ll be a bit of both?
So what to do?
As life becomes more complicated, we continue to have more and more vectors that need our attention, that need planning. Power in general, and batteries more specifically have become another thing we need to focus on. It requires a complete reorienting in our thinking. I have an example from my personal life that speaks to just this point. Because of my aforementioned issues with my phone, I recently brought a wall charger with me which included several different attachments when I went to meet my wife and kids at a local restaurant. My phone was fully charged and even with the battery being in this weak state, I knew it should easily last the period of my outing. I also could have just plugged the phone into the car charger if it got low but something told me to bring the wall charger. When I got there my daughter’s tablet battery was dead. If we wanted to have an uninterrupted adult conversation we needed access to Peppa Pig stat! I pulled out the power cord with the correct adapter for the tablet, one that was different than my phone. I told my wife it was for emergencies. She gave me that ‘your insane’ look but we plugged in the tablet and the soothing sounds of oinking commenced. For the record, any parent can confirm that obnoxious BBC cartoon based oinking is a thousand times more soothing than an overtired and whiny three year old when in a public venue.
This lesson underscores that consideration for batteries has to be a part of who we are and what we do when we plan our life. It’s not just about knowing where the chargers are. It’s asking the question of “what do we take with us?” When I was in college I always used to get annoyed at the girls I dated because they would never bring their license with them if they didn’t have a purse. In my mind I wanted to be prepared and I knew that a 21 year old couple couldn’t go out and get a meal that included an alcoholic drink if they didn’t’ have their ID’s. Also, even if I was driving, what if I wanted to drink and then have the girl drive home? Your not supposed to do that without a license. To me when leaving the house you always brought money, your ID, and your keys. These days do we have to add a charging cable to that list as mandatory? Will that be enough or do we need the power brick too?
That’s a personal implementation but what about how we structure our environment? For example should we design and build our houses with batteries and chargers of all types in mind? Power is an issue in our modern world. Unfortunately power is going to be stored in convenient fossil derived liquids less and less. Even if that wasn’t the case and we had enough oil and gas for many future generations, we still have the issue of our growing collection of devices. We have the device in our pocket, on our glasses, around our wrists, and anywhere else someone can dream up a place to put a battery powered circuit and/or screen. Those aren’t going away anytime soon.
Batteries are everywhere and they have become another priority in our lives. It’s that simple. I’d like to write more but I’m getting kinda tired. I guess you could say my batteries are running out. That being said I hope you enjoyed this article. I know I got a charge out of writing it!
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