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Google blames developers for lousy Android battery life

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Creating a multitasking mobile isn't so easy after all, Google's top execs are discovering. Co-founder Larry Page was pressed with concerns about Android's iffy power management yesterday, and according to reports, all he could offer was a bigger battery. Eric Schmidt blamed third party software developers for using the phone's radio capabilities.

Well, duh. That's why the radio's there.

Google's realisation that there's more to a modern mobile handset than snazzy 60fps graphics transitions gives the market a welcome dose of realism. Symbian and Apple, each with its own very clear engineering approach to power management, come up smelling of roses.

Symbian had the advantage of starting from a sound basis, you might recall from our Psion retrospective. When Symbian OS was being devised, between 1994 and 1996, aggressive power management was a top priority.

"Every microamp was sacred," is how David Tupman described the hardware team's philosophy - Psion was still designing its own chips at the time. But the biggest help the hardware team had was an OS that drew very little power. The first Epoc machines used a quarter of the power draw of Microsoft's mobile OS.

It's an advantage that Symbian and Nokia, despite their missteps in recent years, have never really thrown away. If you want a smartphone with maximum power management, there's the modest (and barely promoted) Nokia E52 - eking out 6 hours of 3G talk time (and a month's standby) in a sub-100g package.

Apple has taken a different approach, basically disallowing all third party multitasking. The first iPhone only permitted multitasking for its own music player and in a very limited way, its email package. After two years, it added server-side push notifications, giving background applications the minimal information needed to respond. Still some way short of full multitasking.

This summer sees iPhone OS 4.0 released, with enhanced multitasking in seven areas, but it's closer to the notifications system of OS 3.0 than the pre-emptive multitasking a computer science course would define. An application developer foolish enough to write an application that polls constantly will get little joy. Version 4 does allow most of the use cases - receiving VoIP calls, for example - most people have asked for. But not at the expense of battery life.

In the long run, Page and Schmidt are right - you can't really improve power management easily if it isn't great to begin with, except by adding hardware. If and when Nokia and the Symbian licensees sort out the user interface problems (and there's not much sign of that yet), they'll continue to have a pretty unique advantage. ®

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