Monthly archives of “March 2012

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MG Siegler proves he doesn’t understand hard tech

Part of me loves reading MG Siegler, part of me hates reading him.  He’s clearly an Apple fanboy (and therefore an Android/Google-hater), but he’s also a very clear, opinionated and distinctive writer.  MG is also a fellow University of Michigan alum.

But then yesterday I read his post titled “Power“.  In it, he talks about the biggest takeaway from SXSW was battery life, and how it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue with phones, tablets, etc.  This is very true, battery life will determine size and capability of future devices.  But then he writes this:

I want a laptop that lasts for a week on one charge. I want a cellphone that lasts a month. I want to be able to go to SXSW without a Mophie in each pocket. I don’t want to have to be constantly worrying about battery life every single time I leave my house.

Today’s battery technology is holding back several other advances in technology in major ways. And we are about to see just how bad the situation is in the coming months. Maybe wireless power sources that constantly charge and re-charge devices is the ultimate answer. But it just seems like battery technology is really ripe for disruption.

What a idiotic Silicon Valley-centric viewpoint!  The world of battery technology is one that depends on chemistry and material science.  Moore’s Law has worked for transistors, but no other field of hard science works that way.

In software, new technologies and techniques can be conceptualized, built, and deployed industry-wide in a flash.  Google described the MapReduce framework in 2004; in just a few years it was virtually an industry standard for Big Data applications.  This happens all the time, and because of it, Silicon Valley types get used to that rapid clip of innovation.  But this pace of change is the exception, not the norm.

The companies behind batteries and battery technology are fighting tooth-and-nail for every advantage they can get.  Any company that’s successful can build a billion-dollar advantage in the market.  I worked for years with lead-acid, Nickel-Metal-Hydroxide, and Silver-Zinc batteries; each has their own styles of deficiencies.

MG comes across as an Silicon-Valley-centric arrogant jerk saying that “battery technology is really ripe for disruption.”  It implies that all he needs to do is call attention to this problem, and two hackers in a garage will start experimenting and build a battery that’s better than anything else on the market.  The reasons improving battery technology is tough is because the chemistry and material science problems are orthogonal; the work isn’t x*2, it’s x^2.  Even once you’ve solved the key problems, manufacturing at the scale required for specific use cases becomes a third problem, since it forces a re-evaluation (and sometimes a complete re-design) of the original chemistry and material science problems.

So when I read MG’s post, I really lost a lot of respect for him.  Just because a VC wishes he could have a better battery, doesn’t change the laws of nature.