Battery life and phone charging become real competitive advantages

The launches by Nokia and Motorola Mobility this week highlighted the increasing competitive advantage attached to once mundane issues of battery life and charging. Nokia focused heavily on its enhanced implementation of the Qi wireless charging standard while Motorola’s CEO Dennis Woodside emphasized extended battery life as one of the firm’s key differentiating assets.

Short battery life is one of the most common user complaints about their smartphones, not helped by the blurred messages manufacturers communicate. According to a study of 50 smartphones by Xerox’s WDS unit, a specialist in mobile technical support, all but two models misled consumers in their battery life claims. This was because they ignored the impact on battery performance of common activities like browsing, video and using applications. “The majority of manufacturers simply publish standby and talk time figures, which have the lowest drain on smartphone battery performance,” said VP of marketing Tim Deluca-Smith.

This issue is increasingly important in influencing consumer choice of device. A recent JD Power survey found that around 25% of customers who are satisfied with their smartphone’s battery life would “definitely’ repurchase another device from the same vendor, compared to 13% of users who are less satisfied in this area.

So Motorola’s battery claims for its new RAZR models could, if they translate to real consumer experience, be a significant factor in attracting and retaining buyers. Woodside said the new handsets can sustain 16 to 32 hours of talk time, far longer than most LTE devices, because of the engineering team’s expertise in, and heavy focus on mitigating the trade-offs between LTE performance and battery drain.

Meanwhile, as Nokia boosted Qi, Intel is pushing wireless charging further via an alliance with IDT. The partners will add the capabilities to a reference chipset next year, which will eventually enable users to recharge handsets from an ultrabook or PC without cables. The companies will run Intel’s resonance recharging technology, called WREL (wireless resonant energy link) on IDT chips, seeing Intel adding yet another differentiating capability to boost the appeal of its ultrabook processors and reference platform (other examples include built-in NFC). There may also be an agenda to differentiate phones based on its Atom processor, if they can be charged easily from the PC.

IDT says its wireless charging ICs are 80% smaller and 50% cheaper than rivals, making them well suited to mobile devices. The technology works by creating a magnetic field in the transmitter coil that can provide power to the receiver coil. This inductive charging is enhanced by resonant circuits. Intel has been developing these capabilities for at least four years but users’ need to recharged mobile gadgets frequently and flexibly is an impetus to commercialize the work.

However, Intel often stumbles by trying to impose its own technologies in the face of rival work on broader standards. Qualcomm and Samsung recently formed a consortium called the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), and there is also the group behind Qi, called the Wireless Power Consortium, which aims to make its platform into a global standard and has commercial implementations with Nokia and RIM.