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Power to the people!

What’s the next big thing for smartphones? If I truly knew the answer to that question, I’d probably already be on a nice tropical island somewhere, laughing at those poor folks charged with making that next big thing a reality. Truth is, I don’t know, nor does anyone but the consumer. I do know one thing, though — power optimization, already very important, is going to become even more important in the coming years. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, but some of the big ones include:

Multimedia

The feature curve for multimedia in smartphones is flattening out as we start approaching consumer electronics equivalency in terms of audio and video playback, for example. And in the not so distant future, a typical smartphone will capture and playback 1080p video. You will be able to watch videos from your phone at 1080p resolution via an HDMI connection to your TV. Once this becomes standard fare, most of the big-ticket feature evolution is complete. I know there will still be new features — no doubt about that — but the rate of new feature addition will slow down, with a shift from feature addition to feature optimization. And these MM features use lots of power, so power optimization for multimedia will start consuming a greater proportion of total multimedia R&D effort in the coming years.

Symmetric Multiprocessing

This has been commonplace on desktop PCs for years and has recently found its way into the laptop space (and netbooks) as well. Smartphones are the next logical application of this technology, which produces the promise of improved performance and reduced power consumption. Achieving the former is relatively straightforward, but the latter is almost an art form and the fact that the number of application processors may double, quadruple or even more… means that the complexity involved in finding the right balance between power and performance will demand new approaches and more R&D effort.

Increased Use of Smartphone Features

For many years, smartphones have been packed with all kinds of features that could potentially (and quickly) drain the battery. This problem has only been more recently exposed to the broader consumer base as a result of operators making it easier to access online services via reasonably priced data plans, unlimited data plans and ubiquitous WiFi hotspots. As consumers start taking social media, their favorite instant messaging client and GPS with them, the demands on the battery increase significantly. It is not at all unrealistic today for someone to be listening to music on their smartphone while using a GPS application to find a place to meet, texting (or IM-ing) the person you’re meeting and looking at their favorite social media sites in between map updates. All of these tasks require considerable amounts of power, and doing them together increases the complexity of the power optimization solution. Moreover, consumers will expect to get all this extra stuff for “free” — meaning that they will expect that talk time and standby time will not be compromised to enable these features.

Battery Issues

In my opinion, battery technology is not evolving nearly as quickly as smartphone capability; in fact, small, thin form factors are still preferred, which means there’s a big push to allow even less room for the battery. These factors also call out the need to make the most out of every milliamp.

New User Interfaces

Most smartphone user interfaces now involve the use of graphics acceleration to achieve high frame rates, complex compositing and cool transition effects. Graphics cores, particularly 3D cores, tend to be very power hungry and as the demand for more and more UI “wow factor” continues, the cores will grow in complexity and will require even more power to achieve these effects. More and more emphasis will have to be placed on making every milliamp count.

More Consumer Awareness

The meteoric rise in energy prices means that consumers are more and more aware of the need to reduce energy consumption. Just look at the exponential increase in the number of hybrid vehicles you see on the road each day, the rapid transition from traditional light bulbs to energy-saving bulbs, smart meters, etc. It’s clear that folks are far more aware of their energy consumption today than they were even a couple of years ago. There’s no reason to believe this awareness will not translate to the mobile space as well.

All of these factors mean that optimization of power consumption to achieve maximum smartphone performance will soon become one of the driving factors in smartphone R&D, if not the factor. I’ll end my blog with another random thought on this topic. Given all the factors above and consumers’ strong desire to be more energy efficient, I wonder when the consumer electronics industry in general (i.e,. the folks that make gadgets that you plug into an outlet) will start putting more emphasis on power management for their products? It would be interesting to see how much electricity your average consumer would save annually if all the gadgets in his or her house were optimized as much as possible for power consumption.

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