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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.

  • Jorge Castro

    If only there was a way to swap out the batteries so people could just throw an extra one in their backpack or something …

  • Ben Werdmuller

    You’re absolutely right about battery tech, of course. What does seem possible is that the software that runs on devices could become much leaner – it’s typically very bloated right now – thereby conserving energy. So it’s not that the battery actually has a higher capacity, but that the software stack above it uses it more intelligently.

    Already you can download efficiency software for Android that has extended my battery by around 150-200%, for example, simply by forcing background apps to connect to the network 6 times an hour instead of continuously. Walking around, I don’t see any change – it’s not like I’m constantly glued to my handset – but the battery life is noticeably different. Right now software uses resources in a brute force sort of way, and it’s got to become far more intelligent.

  • HTM

    Wow. I didn’t get that at all. I thought he as simply pointing out battery life hasn’t improved that much over a long period of time, and we’re hoping someone has a breakthrough.  That’s all.

  • Christopher

    I want a battery in my laptop that last a week also. Does that make me an arrogant jerk?

  • joebella

    Conversely, just because a problem is hard, doesn’t mean that there can’t be any revolutionary advances in it.

  • Renstein

    Somehow, I think you missed the point of the article. In fact, I know you did because in the only place that Siegler provides some idea for an answer, it doesn’t involve a new battery type at all! He proposes ubiquitous wireless charging as a possible solution.

    He’s not pretending to know about battery technology or how hard it is. If he is a venture capitalist, what he is doing is pointing out what he sees as the next necessary area for tech improvement. I’m sure, he is hoping for a lot of people working in this field to come up to him and say: “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for this…” and then he gives them money.

    I don’t think the article he wrote was wrong or misleading or condescending in the way that you took it. I think you had the wrong expectations of Seigler. 

  • Jeff

    It was a show of ignorance, not idiocy or arrogance. Losing respect for someone over a comment like that is more than a bit silly.

  • TOM

    Read his article. While highly general in nature and offering very little in trying to solve the problem, his article merely brings up the point that power/battery is what is holding devices back. I don’t really see what’s idiotic nor arrogant about bring up an issue. 

  • Simon Ly

    Well played, Jed. I guess it must be easier to spot talent than it is to understand the talent needed to create something.

  • rjw

    He doubles down on thinking that his attitude is key to new battery technology here:

    You know what else is ripe for disruption? Flying cars.

  • Rupert Stubbs

    I think you’re being a bit harsh. In many ways what he’s pointing out is precisely that Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to battery life – and that’s why it’s becoming more of an issue. 

    As for the “disruption” bit – I really don’t think he meant that it was easy. Or that people weren’t trying their hardest to solve it. Disruption can also mean bringing a completely new way of defining the problem – for example, as smartphones accumulated more and more function keys to make them do more, the solution to making a more powerful smartphone turned out to be getting rid of the keys altogether.

    Probably the answer is unlikely to be one major tech breakthrough, but – like the rapid increase in recent car fuel consumption – a mixture of new ideas and “slow and steady” tech development. But we can dream.

  • Vera Comment

    I read that piece and all I took away from it is 2 things: 1) it’s a problem (which you acknowledge) and 2) his own wants (which is what everyone else wants too – including yourself). 

    The difficulty in achieving the goal due to the laws of nature is irrelevant – and many nerds are toiling away in their garages right now trying to improve the capacity to size ratio (because it will make them RICH) Else, how do you explain +~70% capacity in the new iPad with a DISPROPORTIONATE increase in size/weight? Look at the Droid Maxx (?) – one of the primary selling features of which is “all day” battery (or the longest life of any phone). 

    Laws of nature be damned – people are figuring it out.All I took way from your piece is: this is what we all want, but it’s not going to happen (easily) because it’s hard. If it was easy, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The fact that it’s hard is REASON people are working on it.” I worked for years with lead-acid, Nickel-Metal-Hydroxide, and Silver-Zinc batteries; each has their own styles of deficiencies.”I think you might be taking it a little personally.MG is not criticizing the way it works today. He’s saying it’s time to pick up the pace. Disruptors need to be set on high, not medium.One of the crowing achievements of American technology was getting to the moon and back. That was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done.”we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard..”

    we got to the moon in less than 8 years after that speech. But you don’t think anybody’s going to figure out how to build a better battery anytime soon?