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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)

Scientists are getting better at mixing the right chemicals to get more power out of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, but there are cost and physical limitations on how much energy can go into a small cell. Intel is testing battery technology and working with hardware manufacturers to introduce laptops usable for roughly eight hours without external power. Those computers could be on the market by 2008.

Today, people are still locked in a power struggle. David Wochner, a lawyer in Washington, last week called the tech department at his firm because his BlackBerry appeared not to be taking a charge. "I'm now down to two bars and I'm getting really nervous," he said. "The fact that you have to keep track of charging and making sure you're getting it done is a pain. The phone is driving me bananas."

In technology circles, experts sing about the promise of convergence -- phone, computing, e-mail, television, gaming and photography on one device -- yet most people still carry separate gadgets for each function. And that requires a host of different chargers.

"I have so many chargers, can I just tell you?" Kammerer said, rattling off the list: Two laptop chargers -- one at work, one in the briefcase. Another for the iPod, "although the cord is too short, so you can't plug it in and put it on the table, so it mostly stays on the floor."

He has more than a dozen chargers for his cell phone. There's one in the bedroom, where he puts his spare change, so that he won't forget to stick the phone in his pocket each morning. "I leave one in my suitcase in the front pocket. It kind of lives there" so he won't forget it when he travels. He remembers running to stores between meetings to replace forgotten chargers, or bumming one off of a client. Kammerer has "a charger graveyard" of a dozen or more spares he bought on business trips.

"If you switch [cell phone] brands, it won't work," Kammerer said of his many chargers. "I wish they were standardized. My briefcase gets heavy."

Manufacturers argue that providing their own chargers ensures the quality of the service, said Jeff Joseph, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association. Also, at $30 to $50 for a charger, "it's an important revenue source."

There is a new universal power adapter called iGo that comes with specialized tips, each about the size of a bottle cap, that can be exchanged to fit different devices -- iPods, almost any cell phone, laptops, BlackBerrys. It can also charge several devices at once.

"The average consumer carries 5.5 power devices," said Charles R. Mollo, president and chief executive of Mobility Electronics Inc., which makes the iGo. "The key problem we solve is to make life easier."

All griping about battery power aside, many users agree that today's mobile devices are an improvement on what came before. Remember the days of 20-pound "portable" computers and breadbox-size boomboxes weighted down with D-size batteries?

"There's no way I'd ever be willing to go back to the way it used to be," Wochner said.

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