Dramatic and Mundane Developments Advance Mobile Device Powering


Every month or so, it seems, one of the tech sites has a story about some new and promising approach to device powering. This week, for instance, CNet reported on the St. Andrews Air (STAIR) project at the University of St. Andrews. The idea is to eliminate the chemicals in which the reactions between the lithium ions and electronics interact in today's batteries. The replacement media is nothing more than thin air. The result, the story says, will be batteries capable of storing as much as 10 times the amount of energy as today's batteries.


It is entirely possible that the research will lead to a powering device with such expansive amounts of energy. The point is, however, that these exciting prospects seem to fade back into the lab as soon as the exciting story is posted. Even if things go well, the STAIR batteries aren't expected for at least five years. Even optimistic researchers wouldn't argue that it is just as likely that the concept never reaches the commercialization phase. At this stage, anything that goes wrong can be a deal-breaker.


But breakthrough technology is but one of three ways to head off a mobile device energy crisis. The second leg on the stool designed to support mobile devices is empowering them to do the same job while using less juice. That's quite a trick, since nothing comes for free, and every fancy new application or capability added to a mobile device puts that much more stress on its power sources. Progress is being made. For instance, Fortune offers a well done story describing Intel's plans to become the major player in the consumer electronics sector by the Medford project, which focuses on low power chips.


The third approach-and the three are most effective when used in concert-is to more carefully manage the devices. Turning off the backlight a bit sooner by default, scanning for Wi-Fi hotspots a bit less frequently, and myriad other shortcuts add up to significant savings.


The ability to support the growing power and sophistication of mobile device, especially small smartphones, is a topic of great concern to device makers and service providers. The concern is reflected in the media. PC World's James Martin, for instance, takes a look at netbooks from the point-of-view of their battery life. He gives generally favorable assessments to the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, the Samsung N110, the Acer Aspire One A0D150 and the HP Mini 2140.


The good news is that there are promising long-term research projects underway-some of which actually will bear fruit-and less dramatic but nonetheless valuable steps that can be taken in the short-term.