Nokia, the world's largest cell phone maker, is also researching the problem. The company gives battery life a high priority in designing phones, said Sari Tasa, an energy supply specialist at Nokia, adding that the company selects parts suppliers partly on the basis of power efficiency. But, Tasa said, increasingly Nokia phones allow users to manually manage their phone's power consumption by turning off certain features or applications.
"Everybody is needed in this work," Tasa said.
In-Stat's McGregor noted that technology is not standing still. Although performance continues to improve, handset makers are faced with the fact that "everyone wants it smaller, faster, cheaper," he said--adding that manufacturers will have to architect solutions, not just devices. To make that jump, there may need to be a revolution.
Seeking out solutions
One solution may come from something already inside the phone: processor technology. As processing cores become larger to accommodate more features, they burn more power. Texas Instruments has developed a technology for its OMAP 4 products called multi-core processing, which basically divides general processing into two smaller processing cores, where one can be turned off when it is not needed, thus saving power. "Performance when you need it at a much lower power" is how Brian Carlson, TI's OMAP platform marketing manager, described it.
TI is also developing application-specific multi-core technology for video or graphics and imaging, which also turn off when these functions are not in use.
"This isn't a fad or something that's going to go away," Carlson said. "Multi-core is a long-term trend."
He said the onus is on solutions providers to innovate. "I don't think you (should) expect the user to be continuously turning things on and off," he said. "You need to make this as seamless as possible."
Another option is fuel cell technology. MTI MicroFuel Cells, a subsidiary of MTI, has been working on fuel cells since 2001 and uses direct methanol fuel cell technology. MTI's Jim Prueitt said the company has so far surmounted many of the hurdles inherent in offering commercial fuel cells, including safety testing.
Currently, MTI has a stand-alone fuel cell product that acts like a portable charger for mobile phones, but is also working on products that run inside devices. Prueitt said handset vendors are evaluating MTI's technology, and he hopes the company will commercialize its internal fuel cell technology in early 2010.
Handset makers "want a mature technology," Prueitt said. "The whole fuel cell industry is going through the throes of how they can make their technology robust enough, stable enough and low-cost enough to be able to drive it to that mature state."
There are a variety of other approaches to the problem, including technology from M2E Power that would harness kinetic energy to generate, convert and store power for mobile phones and other electronics. But so far, none has hit the mainstream.
"Everybody's in a holding pattern while these other technologies are coming together," said Michael Morgan, a mobile devices analyst at ABI Research.
It remains to be seen whether alternative energy technologies will present a solution to the industry's power cravings. In the meantime, though, it appears an arsenal of innovations, from turning off applications to battery exchange programs, will have to be called into service.
"There's no silver bullet," In-Stat's McGregor said. "You have to do a little bit of everything to make it work."