04Mar 2015

This year’s Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona was buzzing with a number of announcements, with the much anticipated Samsung S6 and wearables taking front seat. All the major players in the mobile space, with the exception of Apple, proudly exhibited their new devices, technologies and capabilities in very glitzy and increasingly spacious booths. In this incredible information frenzy, we can make a few observations about where mobility is heading for the next year or two.

1.  Thin is in, and that means headaches with thin batteries:

So goes Apple, goes the mobile industry. That is now very clear. Arguments abound on the merits and disadvantages of ultra thin mobile smartphones, but these are in some sense moot discussions. Apple sets the trend for design and looks, and the rest of the industry follows. Samsung, for a few short-lived years, was a counter pole to Apple, but with the Samsung Galaxy S6, it finally succumbed to the immense momentum of the iPhone. The iPhone 6 is 6.9mm. The Galaxy S6 is a smidgen thinner at 6.8mm. The iPhone has had a non-removable battery since the original one. The new S6 finally adopts a non-removable battery. Side by side, these devices are beginning to look awfully similar, both using an elegant unibody aluminum design. With increasingly converging designs and performance specs, brand recognition and looks now become more important elements in the end user’s purchase decision.

With such thin profiles, the battery is getting thinner. Real thin, less than 4mm. This poses serious headaches as both energy density and cycle life performance are degraded.

The iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6 side by side. They look awfully similar.

2. Bigger is better; that is a bigger battery capacity:

With a few exceptions, high-end smartphones are nearly all converging towards a 3,000 mAh battery.  These devices exhibit large and full-HD displays that are typically power hungry. With such capacities, the expected battery life is one day, and occasionally depending on usage patterns, up to two days. For mid-range and lower-end phones using smaller and displays of lesser resolution, the battery capacity is converging towards the range of 2,000 – 2,500 mAh.

3. Fast charging is in:

Samsung is the first large mobile device maker to seriously tread on fast charging. Its Note 4 was the first device to offer some fast charging capabilities, at or approaching 0.9C rates. The Galaxy S6 and its sister Edge are also incorporating modest fast charging capabilities, albeit these two devices sacrifice battery capacity (down to 2550 mAh) relative to competing devices from Sony, LG and the new manufacturers from China. More and more devices will launch this year and next with fast charging capabilities. Fast charging is finally becoming a standard.

4. With wearables, the battery remains an utter failure:

Nearly every mobile device maker has already announced or introduced a watch of some kind. Their utility and features are evolving fast. End users have not exactly rushed to buy these new (and expensive) gadgets, but they are certainly keenly watching from the sidelines. The watches announced at this year’s MWC are increasingly elegant signaling that functionality is no longer the sole determining driver in mobility — design and looks are on the minds of the engineers and end customers. But in this evolving ecosystem, the battery fails miserably. The Sony SmartWatch 3 exhibits a battery with 420 mAh lasting about 1.5 days of “average use.” The LG Watch Urbane has a greater 700-mAh battery capacity but does not last more than 1.5 days — it has a power-hungry LTE radio. For both, the charge time is 2 to 3 hours. That’s not acceptable. That’s far too long for a wearable device. Expect that fast charging becomes an absolute necessity in this product category.

Two elegant smart watches. The SmartWatch 3 from Sony (left) and the LG Urbane (right).