Microsoft's modular handset design misses powerful opportunity

Microsoft's recently-filed patent describes a handset that's a multi-tasker's dream, but research into power-scavenging shows handsets could be much more powerful.

The eventual -- or, apparently imminent -- release of the iPhone 5 has devoted users in a tizzy of anticipation. And, certainly, phone designers from competing manufacturers are aching to see how much higher the bar will be raised.

But Microsoft has applied for a patent on a new handset design that could, should it come to fruition, take a decently competitive jab at wooing smartphone shoppers, especially those who like to multi-task.

The design calls for detachable and interchangeable assets that are available to the user as he or she wants to use them. A game controller, an extra battery and a QWERTY keyboard can be added or removed from the phone, based on the user's interests. And here's the bigger draw: all these modules can communicate with the phone wirelessly, so users can take advantage of more than one at once.

It's too soon to know whether this might translate into a real product some day, though as notes, Microsoft's focus on the smartphone market could buoy it. A focus on modularity during product development could put a dent in the e-waste problem, too -- before and after the factory.

What would really make this design innovative, however, is a component that's not part of the patent: one that converts mechanical energy to electrical energy, thereby exploiting the "mobile" in "mobile phone."

This kind of energy harvesting technology is becoming more science and less fiction as researchers test various approaches to scavenging power in new ways, often helped by nanoparticles or other advanced materials.

Late this summer, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a paper in Nature showing the viability of harvesting energy from footsteps to power a cell phone as one example of "reverse electro-wetting."

The device harvests power from the displacement of tiny droplets of liquid sitting on a substrate. As an applied force (say, a foot hitting the pavement) moves the droplets, an electrical current is generated. Their research shows that sufficient current could be generated this way to, at least, supplement the power stored in a battery of a mobile device such as a phone.

One particularly intriguing application would to use the power harvested this way to fuel only the Wi-Fi component in a phone, since that component is responsible for a significant amount of battery drain.

Modular and self-powered? Now that's a smart phone.

[via Wired and Earth Times]

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