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January 9, 2015


Mobile Devices
Nadim Maluf

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which is just ending, has given us, consumers, a lot of new gadgets to ponder. We saw a gamut of new toys from larger TVs, 4K video, curved screens and curved smartphones, to wearable devices and IoT — a new acronym for Internet of Things, or perhaps better said as “connecting all things”, but that would be a CAT; we wouldn’t like that!

But what do consumers really, really care about? We no longer have Steve Jobs to presciently guide the consumer flock to where they should spend their dollars. So, marketing experts resort to surveys, of all kinds. So what are these surveys telling them.

Fortune and SurveyMonkey released a poll at the 2015 CES show. They asked “what new or improved smartphone feature are you most excited about?“. The #1 answer was, yes, you guessed it right, “improved battery life.” By a 2:1 margin, it led the next best wanted feature: faster processor. The same survey also showed that nearly ¾ of all respondents were not likely to buy a fitness band or smart watch in 2015. So if surveys are such a guide, why are the consumer electronics manufacturers spending huge development dollars on smart watches and so little on making their batteries perform better?

A 2014 survey by The Guardian in the UK shows that consumers are asking for better batteries ahead of all other features

The Guardian in the UK published earlier in 2014 another survey asking consumers to rank a number of features in smartphones. It also found that a better battery came in as the #1 desired feature. So I ask again, why aren’t the electronics manufacturers seeking the best innovations and technologies to make batteries better? I will offer a few suggestions.

First, the battery problem is not easy to solve. Electronics manufacturers have plenty of smart electronics and software engineers, yet, more often than not, they lack in the critical skill of battery chemistry. It was not until the last decade that engineers and scientists wanted to work on batteries. So, these large consumer electronics manufacturers have to seek solutions elsewhere. They are not finding the answers with the large battery manufacturers in Asia who themselves are struggling with making better batteries. Many electronics manufacturers are not organized nor well suited to efficiently work with innovative startups that have creative solutions for this problem. So they are stuck and keep iterating around silly solutions.

Second, there is a lot of NIH in the industry — that’s an acronym for Not Invented Here. Engineers are an amazing creature. I can say that because I am one of them. On one hand, they have an imaginative mind and are great at what they do, but on the other hand, their ego can stand in their way and that prevents them from seeking solutions that may not have been invented by them. I am, of course, crudely generalizing and there are lots of exceptions. But the degree of NIH is climbing in the industry especially as the mobile industry is rapidly commoditizing placing enormous pricing pressures on the manufacturers.

The net result is that the rate of innovations is beginning to slow down, and the industry is beginning to fall into a vicious circle of introducing silly features that consumers do not care about, and that’s precisely what the surveys are saying. Time will be a judge of the new wearable products. But one thing I can tell the manufacturers now: Let us help you fix the battery problem!

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