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Dell’s recall of 4.1 million laptop batteries has renewed the discussion about the effectiveness of modern power sources. For the last decade, mobile technologies have become more pervasive and smaller and chipsets have become more powerful. It’s been a wonderful time for handheld devices and laptops.

However, advances in batteries – and whether this fact is true or perceived is still up in the air – have lagged behind advances in memory and computing power. (The New York Times has an interesting article about the current developments in battery research.)

More often than not, the biggest impediment for me, as I cart around a cornucopia of devices, is hauling the mass of wires and power sources I need to make everything go for extended periods. In other words, we’re facing the same problem today – the power supply problem – that Nicholas Negroponte wrote about in his 1995 Being Digital.

Here is a snippet from the book:

If the progress in battery technology developed at the same pace as integrated circuits, we would be commuting to work in cars powered by flashlight batteries. Instead, I carry more than ten pounds of batteries when traveling in order to feed my laptop on a long flight. Over time, batteries for laptops have gotten heavier, as notebook computers have acquired more functions and brighter displays. (In 1979 Sony’s Typecorder, the first laptop, used only four AA batteries.) 

A few years back, I talked with researchers in one of IBM’s battery research groups. What struck me – and this thought came back as I re-read Negroponte’s work and skimmed the Dell articles – was IBM’s research focused on reducing battery power leakage. That, they thought, was the best chance for improving battery power, even though their work would lead to only minimal gains.

It’s an interesting quandary for mobile computing, one that is likely to hamstring the industry for some time.

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