Umeox Shows Next Step in Solar Evolution

I have an Android phone. Got it just before a trip to Europe last year.

Since I got back I’ve found it’s pretty good. It syncs up with my Gmail. It has a very nice camera. Yes, you can get some nice apps, including GPS maps. Old folks like me can text with it because it has something like a real keyboard, and software that completes words as you spell them.

The biggest problem? It drains power like nobody’s business. The mail sync takes power. The camera takes power too. My biggest challenge in using it away from home is finding places to plug it in.

Umeox of China has heard me, and at the Mobile World Congress it introduced an Android phone called Apollo with an integrated solar panel on its back. Have it upside-down under the Sun for about 2 ½ hours each day and you’re good to go. The estimate is 17 hours for a full charge.

Yes, it’s a gimmick. It’s like those USB thumb drives I saw in Taiwan a few years ago shaped like sushi. Chinese manufacturing is so competitive that everyone is looking for gimmicks to achieve an edge.

Some reporters are going ho-hum over this  because, as a phone, this isn’t much of a much. (Expect AT&T to have it in stock this summer. Then you can judge for yourself. )

But it does illustrate something important, namely the state of the art on the very low end of solar power.

A year ago, that state of the art meant a CIGS panel that you laid out on the ground that would power up a phone in about the same time you need with this Umeox. We’ve basically integrated last year’s solar charger into the unit. That’s progress.

Given the size-and-shape of this panel, it’s easy to conceive of an iPhone charger disguised as a case  and a USB plug at the base, allowing you to recharge the unit with a standard retractable Firewire  dock connector. For Android you just use a different connector. (I don’t like the Android power connector, by the way – the thing falls out too easily.)

What’s the use? Well, M stands for Mobile. M doesn’t stand for hunting around for a power plug. It doesn’t stand for carrying a host of accessories in your bag. M stands for mobile, and once you have one of these babies you can pretty much be off the grid. Take pictures of Libyan rioters all day, upload them when you can get a clear connection, and no fear if Gaddafi decides to cut off the electricity.

Phones aren’t the only important mobile devices, although they’re integrating a lot of other functions from other devices. Portable game machines, for instance. GPS devices. But there are other mobile devices in our lives drawing very little power. I have a computer to track mileage on my bike, and it’s very tiny but there should still be enough real estate on it for a solar recharge. (I’m running through a Lithium watch battery about once a year.)

In terms of total power demand this doesn’t amount to much. In terms of lifestyles, especially in remote locations and off-the-grid, it’s a ginormous change. It means a lot less demand for non-rechargeable batteries, a bigger device market generally.

This is where growth comes from.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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