net.wars: Weightlifting

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 September 2002

With all the improvements there have been in information technology in the last couple of decades, wouldn't you think someone would have really come to grips with the Battery Problem by now?

Wendy M Grossman

The problem is, every time someone comes up with a better battery - lighter, longer-lasting, more powerful - they bump up the power demands from the devices themselves.

This is of interest to me at the moment because I'm on the road for two weeks, so naturally I am having a Battery Crisis. I'm traveling with two mobile phones, a laptop, a Palm, one of those megacapacity MP3 players, a pocket reading light, a tiny radio, and a miniature alarm clock, and except for the twin mobile phones (which are UK and US versions of the same model) and the radio and pocket light, none of these things takes the same type of battery.

I have two batteries for the laptop, one a five-hour high-capacity effort, and the other a two-hour ordinary one. The Palm has its own rechargeable, though to be fair it's only temporarily mine; the one I actually use when I need a PDA takes ordinary AAAs. The radio and pocket light both also take an AAA each. The alarm clock takes one of those watch-style round, flat things. The MP3 player also has its own rechargeable pack, as they all seem to these days.

But I can't believe that all these single-purpose rechargeables are what people really want. When one of these battery packs goes down - which they all, eventually, inevitably do - you have to replace it expensively from the original manufacturer. Which is fine as long as it's still in business, but how many of these companies will be, say, ten years from now? How easy is it to get a replacement battery for, say, a laptop from AST? Ten years ago, that was a big company.

I don't know what other people want from battery technology, but what I want is everything to run on no more than one or two types of batteries that are easily sourced, reasonably cheap, and rechargeable. I want to be able to stick all those batteries in a recharger when I get home - but also be able to buy fully charged replacements in an airport candy store if I need to. Compaq and Duracell, some time like 1994, made a stab at creating a "standard" battery. I think the only company that ever used it in its laptops was Compaq.

When you look around to see what's new in battery technology, you find things like this, which are really missing the point. Three pounds! And I have to lug it around even after it's gone flat.

This idea sounds more promising - a redesigned portable fuel cell - and I guess it wouldn't be too big a deal for airport shops to sell little bottles of methanol. Or perhaps the bars could sell it on draught, like beer.

Probably the closest thing to a perfect laptop there's ever been for journalists is still the Tandy 100 , a mid-1980s proto-laptop that was so popular in the news media that as recently as a couple of years ago the Independent still referred to its stream of incoming stories as the "Tandy queue." Four AA batteries kept it running for something like 20 hours. It had a modem in it - OK, a 300-baud modem, but a modem. I wasn't a journalist in those days, but I'd guess one of its best features was that it didn't really do much other than process words. Of course, at the time we didn't know Bill Gates was involved in its software (and if we had, probably most people wouldn't have known who he was.)

Yeah, yeah, I know. My current portable, a Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook P2020 has a colour screen, 20Gb of hard drive space, and 128Mb of RAM - instead of a monochrome 10-line LCD and 56Kb or whatever it was. I can watch movies (DVDs) on it. It can play any music I feel like with sound as good as most home stereo systems a decade or two ago. It can double as a digital recorder if I interview someone. It's almost small enough to double as a PDA. I can hook a camera to it. It can do anything I want on the Internet over broadband, including wirelessly.

It's a traveling full-featured office and all-mod-cons home entertainment center. Surely that's worth a proprietary battery or two? My complaint is that there's no choice. There is no option on the market to sacrifice colour, DVD, and processor power in favor of a 20-hour battery life. PDAs, which are the nearest thing to such an option, are awful to type on, and lots don't do all that well battery-wise either. On most flights, you don't get to enjoy all those fancy laptop features - you're too busy conserving battery life with an internal running calculation that goes something like, "OK, I'll read these papers during lunch, and I'll make notes on what I'm going to write, and then I'll get a couple of hours writing flat out and then ... "

Ah, well, I have a secret strategy. I'm flying on an Airbus 333 on US Air with an extra little black zip case out of which, at the beginning of the flight, I will smugly extract a laptop power adaptor. US Air has an outlet at every seat. Batteries, my ass.

[Editor's note: Wendy Grossman is American, and her spelling checker contains neither "arse" nor "sceptic" as valid words. She does not have a battery-powered donkey.]

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).