A Wireless World, Bound To Sockets

Joe Kammerer of Washington has to carry lots of chargers for various gadgets when he travels. Above, he packs for a trip to London.
Joe Kammerer of Washington has to carry lots of chargers for various gadgets when he travels. Above, he packs for a trip to London. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

Here's the paradox of the portable age: The electronic devices that free people to go anywhere but never lose touch also keep them bound by cords and plugs to electric sockets. Sophisticated devices with color screens, video and gaming features demand more of the batteries that power them and, without steady recharging, their users plunge from being in touch to feeling impotent.

"I usually have to recharge it at two-hour intervals," salesman Joe Kammerer said of his laptop computer. "Then it starts complaining that it needs food. . . . It stresses me out."

So Kammerer learned the art of socket-seeking. "I sit strategically in the corner of a conference room," which is close enough to a wall to use a plug, the Washington resident said. "Sit on the floor at the airport? I totally do that."

So do his fellow travelers. "I've gotten, 'Are you going to be long?' and I say, 'Sorry. I just got here.'"

The cycle of renewing battery life has introduced new rituals around the modern trough -- a power strip -- where devices are hooked up to charge overnight like animals watering in a stable. Handhelds and cell phones go in their cradles before bed. Bookcases and beds shift to make way for bulky chargers that cover both sockets, leaving the bedside lamp without power. The laptop, digital camera and iPod play musical chairs on the wall. Drive time becomes critical charge time.

The cycle is irksome for some. Darcy Travlos, a senior analyst for the research firm CreditSights, said she keeps her devices charged in the kitchen, where the toaster and coffee maker take a back seat to the cell phone and iPod. On the road, it's less predictable. "You're a well-dressed professional, and you end up sitting on the floor next to whatever is needing to be charged," she said.

"It's the most important and least-talked-about issue in consumer electronics," said Travlos, who carries a bag full of chargers when she travels. "Everybody's working on battery life."

Each year, batteries become more powerful and circuitry improvements make devices more energy-efficient. Still, batteries can't keep up with of rising expectations for longer life.

Thousands of consumers settled with Apple Inc. this month, after owners of early versions of the iPod complained about its built-in battery.

PalmOne Inc., Intel Corp., Motorola Inc. and many others are putting muscle behind making batteries last longer. In the past few years, Intel started investing in small companies that work on prolonging or preserving battery life, and now has five such investments. Motorola Ventures, Motorola's investment unit, funded A123 Systems, a company developing more-efficient lithium-ion batteries.

Venture-capital companies are getting more interested in battery-power-related investments, said R. Philip Herget, a partner in Alexandria-based Columbia Capital LLC. The company invested in a start-up called Enpirion that manages power in devices, he said, and is looking at other companies. "Power management is critical," he said.

"Battery life is one of the most important things for our customers," said Raj Doshi, product line manager for handhelds at PalmOne Inc., which in April released the Tungsten E2 handheld, lighter and with double the battery life of the previous version. The new handheld is 4.7 ounces, compared with its five-ounce predecessor. "I tell the engineers I want the most battery in a smaller battery size," Doshi said, but that simple request requires huge technological advances.

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