What’s the #1 thing tech consumers wish the smartphone industry would build for them? Bigger screens? Optical image stabilization? Improved data storage? A faster processor?
Nope. Topping the want list—according to a survey done early this year via a Fortune-Survey Monkey poll—is just a better battery.
Among 1,000 demographically representative respondents, when asked, “What new or improved smartphone feature are you most excited about?,” 33% said, “improved battery life.” Fewer than half, only 16%, opted for the second-leading answer, “faster processors.”
And it makes sense.
The average amount of time Americans spend on their mobile devices is up more than 60% in just the past three years. College students, often harbingers of future trends (remember that Facebook thing?), average a staggering nine hours a day on their phones (women 10, men nearly 8), according to a Baylor University study. Overall in 2014, time spent daily on mobile devices—2 hours, 57 minutes—passed that spent watching TV, which was 2 hours, 48 minutes. That’s mind-boggling. It means that in barely seven years of existence, smartphones have kicked to the curb a medium that has been at the center of American life since the middle of the previous century.
Unlike TVs, though, smartphones are mobile; thus they need batteries. And those must be ever more powerful, because the demands we’re making on what we still quaintly call our “phones” are rising at warp speed. The things we feel we have to do on the go—streaming music and video, browsing the Web and social media, and otherwise transferring data to and from the cloud—strip a battery of much of its rated life.
Yet more will be asked as well. Use of phones for business has lagged entertainment and social networking, but that’s changing. In a new analysis conducted by Flurry between the months of January and March 2014, it was found that average US consumers spent 119% more time on productivity apps than they did over the same period a year earlier. This includes time spent in apps on iOS and Android devices, both tablets and phones. The growth rate eclipsed all other categories including Messaging, Games, and News.
Flurry admits that the raw numbers are considerably less impressive; the growth was just from 2.5 to 5.5 minutes per day. Still, there’s a significant shift underway in consumer behavior, and innovation will all but certainly spur an increasingly rapid adoption of productivity apps on tablets and phones.
Manufacturers haven’t done much about this problem yet. The standby life of the iPhone has been virtually stagnant over the years.
So is there any hope of increasing battery power without increasing size? No one has figured that out yet, but one alternative on the horizon is wireless charging. 25-year-old Meredith Perry has started a company called uBeam to do just that.
“The dream is to replace all electrical outlets with uBeam transmitters,” says Perry. “You’ll wake up and just go through your day with your device and it will be charging in your house, in your car, at your bus stop, at your gym, in your hotel. We want to be absolutely everywhere. And wires won’t be anywhere.”
Perry has proven up the principle and is now working hard to shrink her device to manageable proportions.
Of course, her invention is only one among dozens and dozens of wireless charging solutions that have been vying for consumer attention with little success. Maybe instead of trying to find better ways to charge these awful batteries, all that effort could go instead to just making batteries that last longer. After all, are plugs really that much of a problem if your battery lasts two weeks?
Taking a Bite from Apple?
While most of the tech world is focused on the hugely hyped debut of the Apple Watch in April, the little startup that could—Pebble—is preparing a launch of its own.
Pebble, which birthed the smartwatch era through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $10 million, returned to its roots to finance the third-generation Pebble Time. This Kickstarter campaign was a success too. The company raised more than $5 million in less than five hours for its new smartwatch. Why go back for another round of crowdfunding, rather than take the more normal venture capital route?
“We’re a small company battling the largest company in the world,” says founder and CEO Eric Migicovsky. “One of the ways we think we can do that is taking the fight to the users that actually matter. If you support us, we’ll continue.”
The Time will retail for $199, although Kickstarter backers can place an advance order for $159. For comparison, Apple Watch’s projected price is $349. It doesn’t have a display that’s nearly as sophisticated as its competitor, but does have a couple of features that should help it give Apple a run for its money.
For one thing, unlike the Apple Watch, it’s compatible with both Android and the iPhone.
But perhaps most important is its best-of-show battery life. While the Apple Watch will need to be recharged daily and the Samsung Gear 2’s battery can last up to three days with normal use, the Pebble Time can allegedly ride a single charge for a week.
If the consumer sentiment expressed above about batteries holds true, then Pebble should have advantage enough for it to take a significant bite from the Apple. (For a more in-depth look at smartwatches and other wearable computers, see the upcoming March issue of Extraordinary Technology.)
Bits & Bytes
The world’s largest PC maker, Lenovo, is in hot water over a dangerous bit of adware that’s been preinstalled on the company’s laptops since August. Known as Visual Discovery by Superfish, it’s the sort of software add-on that computer manufacturers are often paid to include with their hardware; but this one is a security nightmare that makes users more vulnerable to cyberattacks. According to Robert Graham, CEO of Internet security firm Errata Security, in an article from Wired:
The adware works, he says, by monitoring your web traffic while you’re shopping and then shows you similar products to the images that pop up in your browser. To do this while you’re securely connected to a website with an address beginning with https, Graham explains, Superfish intercepts traffic from the site and makes it searchable by tinkering with the Windows operating system and granting itself the ability to masquerade as any web site on the internet.
And here’s the really bad part: The way Superfish does this is so badly designed that a tech-savvy person could take advantage of the changes Superfish makes to your computer and do the same kind of masquerading. This is what’s called a man-in-the-middle attack.
On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert advising Lenovo customers to remove Superfish from their computers. In the wake of the disaster, Lenovo released a tool to help users remove the adware program, and in an open letter released on Monday, the CTO of the company has gone on to outline plans for the future to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
Is Lenovo’s reputation damaged? Yes. Will it be the end of the company? No. And there could be a silver lining to the whole debacle if it motivates a reassessment of the bloatware that comes preinstalled on most new PCs. For now, the only safe place to buy a Windows PC is in the Microsoft Store.
In other news, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that Apple executives flew to Austria to meet with manufacturers for high-end cars, including Magna International’s Magna Steyr unit, which prompted speculation that Apple was in talks with Magna Steyr in relation to project Titan (i.e., Apple’s electric vehicle project). The thinking was that Apple wanted Magna Steyr to help it build the battery systems for project Titan. But Samsung may have just thrown a wrench into Apple’s plans. In a press release Monday, Samsung announced the acquisition of Magna Steyr’s battery business. Adding another layer of drama to the situation, the acquisition comes as Apple is reportedly poaching Samsung’s top battery experts.
To be fair, many Apple analysts don’t think the company will ever build an actual car because a project like that just isn’t in its DNA. So why does Apple really care about cars? Tim Bajarin of PC Magazine reckons:
Ultimately, it [Apple] wants to revolutionize the in-car navigation, audio/video, communication, and safety features experience and work to get them integrated into future automobiles. To put it simply, Apple wants to own the dashboard.
We’ve noted before that mobile payments isn’t really big business yet. In 2014 it only accounted for about 0.1% of mobile in-store payment volume in the US. But BI Intelligence thinks that’s poised to change fast. It forecasts US mobile payment volume will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 172% over the next five years, reaching $818 billion, or just under 15% of total US payment volume, by 2019.
If BI Intelligence is even a little bit right, it behooves one to know what’s going on in the space. Of course the dominant platform right now is Apple Pay, which accounts for about two-thirds of contactless payments on Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, but Google isn’t going away, and Samsung has reentered the fray. Google just gave a boost to its mobile Wallet with the acquisition of Softcard, a mobile payments company backed by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Prior to the acquisition, Google Wallet had limited availability because the wireless carriers wanted to promote Softcard instead. Now, every new Android phone from the major US carriers will come with Google Wallet. Meanwhile, Samsung’s answer to Apple Pay is the newly acquired mobile-payments tech startup LoopPay, which may be more convenient for now than the competition because it can work at any regular credit card terminal and doesn’t require NFC (near-field communication) technology, but in its current form, it’s bulky and potentially less secure because it uses your actual credit card number versus the “token” Apple Pay uses to hide your actual information.
We all hate passwords. Good ones are nearly impossible to remember, and bad ones aren’t even worth having. But could the password problem finally be coming to an end? Microsoft has recently confirmed that it’s working to end passwords in Windows 10 by adding support for the Fast Identity Online (FIDO) standard, which uses authentication methods such as biometrics (face, voice, iris, fingerprint recognition, etc.) or plug-in devices like dongles, depending on the client. Apple is in the process of making the same move. The shift away from passwords is inevitable and welcome, but it’s important to remember that biometrics may not be as secure as you think, and your dongle could always be lost or stolen.
Waffle House is set to compete with FedEx and UPS? The US diner chain (and maker of the world’s best hash browns) announced this week that it has teamed up with Roadie, a startup seeking to become the “Uber of package delivery.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco-based cloud communications company Twilio is reportedly positioning itself for an IPO after reaching an annual revenue run rate of $100 million.
There’s so much going on in San Francisco these days. If you live there, you’ll soon be able to try the tech that could make your smartphone’s Internet connection 1,000 times faster than it is today.
Finally, Steve Jobs would have turned 60 on Tuesday. Check out 15 of his most inspiring quotes.