Will Apple's boost to iPhone's battery life be enough?

Apple has answered critics who, even before an iPhone was in their hands, were giving its battery life extremely low marks. Fellow ZDNet blogger Jason O'Grady reports:In a last minute surprise Apple has posted new information about the iPhone battery and touchscreen that is sure to please potential buyers.

Apple has answered critics who, even before an iPhone was in their hands, were giving its battery life extremely low marks. Fellow ZDNet blogger Jason O'Grady reports:

In a last minute surprise Apple has posted new information about the iPhone battery and touchscreen that is sure to please potential buyers. In a press release posted this morning Apple claims that iPhone now gets up to eight hours of talk time.

This is significantly more than the 5 hours of video/talk time and 16 hours of audio playback that Apple estimated when iPhone was announced at Macworld Expo 2007 in January.

The release O'Grady referred to says:

iPhone will feature up to 8 hours of talk time, 6 hours of Internet use, 7 hours of video playback or 24 hours of audio playback. In addition, iPhone will feature up to 250 hours—more than 10 days—of standby time.

Good power management has always been central to the success of any mobile device. If a notebook, PDA, or cell phone proves to magically run for what seems like forever (as though it were plugged into the wall), users flock and sales skyrocket. Compared to business users, consumers seem to be a little more tolerant of questionable battery life. It just comes with the turf. But for crack-berry like business users, never is a good time for their devices to run out of power.

For business users, never is also a good time to have two or more devices hanging off your belt. Not that Apple was marketing to enterprise people, but in the iPhone, Apple's marriage of video iPod to a cell phone has certainly sparked the interest of many a business user who want to have it all in one device (Videos and still images 'playback' of their kids, a music collection, E-mail, and of course, telephony not to mention a 2 megapixel camera) and who wants it with the type of user interface that Apple is legendary for.

These are the same reasons I was first interested in the Motorola Q. Although its sound doesn't seem to work when playing back music or movies through its speakers, I can't tell you how many times I've used the Q to show movies of my kids (sure beats whipping out your wallet and unfolding a bunch of pictures). By the way, a lot of those "movies" were created using Microsoft's free PhotoStory utility (which brings still images to a nice life). It's not exactly a business usage, but then again, what business person wouldn't appreciate being able to show movies of their kids (or stills if you wish) on the same device that keeps them in touch with their colleagues.

With the best BlackBerries at the time coming up woefully short in the multimedia department, the Q was the first device that gave me everything I wanted: A keyboard with keys spaced far enough from each other so that my big thumbs could thumb them; Always-on e-mail (in addition to supporting Microsoft Exchange and the POP3 protocol, software can be loaded into it to support either Good or Research in Motion's synchronization servers); MP3 playback capabilities, Bluetooth (support wireless stereo headsets), and of course, video playback.

But, in addition to a string of disappointments that I've chronicled here, the real Q killer -- the one that every Q owner I've met gripes about -- is battery life. Even with a double-sized battery (1. costs extra, 2. makes for a poor fit in all of the belt holsters designed for the Q) , when I'm pushing the Q to its limit, a fully-charged double-battery gets me around 10-13 hours before it's dead. Sure, we're asking these devices to do way more than we used to. But for a handset to not last the day (a typical business travel day where you're up for breakfast at 6am and not back to your hotel room where the charger is until after dinner) is unacceptable. I can't tell you how many times I've started that call (while standing outside the restaurant) to my wife with "Honey, I'm on zero battery, so if I lose you, I'll call you in the morning).

What's the relevance of this to the iPhone? Actually, my new gripe isn't about the iPhone in particular. As can be seen from Apple's press release though, phone manufacturers like to break the battery performance of their handsets in categories of talk time, standby time, Internet use, video and audio playback. But, when you consider the tasks that the device is capable of and the fact that people will do those tasks (or should be doing them... otherwise, why else own this or that phone), these numbers are pretty much useless.

It's amazing how much longer the Q's battery lasts once I stop doing e-mail (in other words, I shut down e-mail communications). In fact, there was a point where my phone was collecting e-mail through two different servers -- one was the corporate e-mail server (flowing into Good's sucky client for Windows Mobile) and the other was Verizon's servers which end-users can use to keep their handsets in synch with any POP3 account (flowing into Pocket Outlook). I had it tied to my Gmail account. I might as well have drilled a drain in the back of the battery for all the juice to flow out of.

Now that I've trimmed it back to just the Good client, things have improved. But the lesson was pretty clear. The more usage the radio(s) get (I'm also using my Bluetooth headgear quite a bit), the faster the battery is going to drain down. One always on e-mail system will keep a radio pretty busy. Two? Busier. Toss in the Bluetooth radio, some text messaging, Web browsing, audio and video playback, not to mention some standard fare phone calls and now, you get to see why breaking battery life down into the simple categories like talk time, standby time, audio playback, video playback and Internet use is, well, useless.

As I said earlier, don't blame Apple for this mess. It's a problem with all phone manufacturers. Apple simply provoked the discussion since it's the iPhone that's center stage in today's discussion about battery life. Tomorrow, it will be the next BlackBerry. Or some other handset.

The good news is that Apple improved the battery life. Any improvement is better than no improvement. What that means though, we won't have any idea until it's in the market having its wings stretched. What it also means is that it's difficult if not impossible to hold handset manufacturers accountable for these estimates.