universal charger phone 640x420

A powerful image, but one that does not represent today’s phone world

The European parliament is pushing to have phone manufacturers use a single type of charger for all mobile phones. According to some institutions, this would reduce the Euro electronic waste by 51000 tons and it would basically put an end to a rather stupid situation where consumers have to buy proprietary chargers each time they get a new handset (this doesn’t happen much these days…). It would also make it convenient to charge phones in many places including friends homes, office and possibly public spaces.

It’s not a bad idea, but it would have been nice to have something like this during the earlier decade when the proprietary charger craze was at its peak. Since then, smartphones have been split between micro USB and Apple’s proprietary connectors. Frankly, this proposal comes late to the point that it doesn’t matter much anymore – at least in the phone space."ANYTHING THAT CAN BE CHARGED WITH MICRO USB SHOULD BE CHARGED WITH IT"  

My opinion is that micro USB rules and that anything that can be charged with micro USB should be charged with it. Digital cameras, webcams, Android game boxes, flashlights are just a handful of examples of devices that are now charged with a worldwide standard connector that is effective, cheap and readily available everywhere you go.

Apple stands to lose the most

If we stick to the smartphone place, which is what the European law focuses on, Apple is the company that stands to lose the most. Not only every single of its product and accessories have a proprietary connector, but this is also a huge high-margin business for Apple.

"A HUGE HIGH-MARGIN BUSINESS FOR APPLE"   Anyone who wants to build a cable or an accessory that is Apple-compatible needs to pay royalties for the connector license, and with the newer Lighting port, Apple has been able to enforce this with a micro-chip that costs “cents” to make, and is sold to accessory makers for about $7 according to industry sources.

This explains why Lighting cables are many times more expensive than their micro USB counterparts: $19 on apple.com and up to $39 on ATT.com. You can compare that to a branded $5.79 micro USB cable from Amazon.com, or a $0.5 unbranded cable that is getting a 3.5/5 score in reviews on Amazon.

Secondly, if Apple was forced to use a standard connector, it would mean that a huge number of accessories would now be Android-friendly as well. While this could be a boon to accessories maker, this would weaken an Apple’s stronghold in ways that are yet to be foreseen.

Stifling Innovation? Possibly, but…

Those against the law say that regulating connectors will “stifle innovation” and prevent new tech from emerging. In some ways, the argument is valid: after all, one could argue that the Lighting connector is better, sturdier and can be used in any direction (up/down).

However, it’s also hard to argue that switching iPhones to micro USB connectors would have a meaningful impact of the usage. Given that just about any other smartphone has a micro USB connector, I would argue that this would mainly be an inconvenience for Apple’s business, but not much more."DID THE MANY PROPRIETARY PHONE CHARGERS TRULY HELP INNOVATION? MARGINALLY AT BEST"  

Also, having standards is a great way to make sure that devices are interoperable and that end-user prices are low. If you look back at the past couple of decades, you can see that proprietary connectors have done little for “innovation”. Did the many proprietary phone chargers truly help innovation? Marginally at best. What they did is provide another opportunity for a brand to sell equipment at high prices because consumers were locked in. Interestingly, the same thing is true foe laptops today and no-on is talking about it.

Standards also allow innovation because it creates a bigger marker for smaller companies that can innovate based on design and true ingenuity instead of using their dominant position or closed eco-system. Overall, and in this specific case, I’m not sure that enforcing a single power connector for smartphones would “stifle innovation”.

Plenty of room to blow it

It’s difficult to get excited by having bureaucrats, many of whom are low-tech, govern how technology should be used and what standards should be appropriate. Political circles are notorious for doing the wrong thing, and to be prone to lobbying efforts.

If you just look at how the political class can handle problems like music piracy or net neutrality, it can get scary: in some (developed) countries, you can get longer jail sentences for MP3 downloads than for homicide.

At this point, the actual standard that the European parliament wants to use has not been nailed down, so for all we know it could be some new, idiotic format that has been pushed by the lobby of an XYZ company which happens to be a patent troll. Most likely, I expect it to be micro USB. We’ll see.

In the end, the draft law has been passed with 550 vote out of 570, and there are more steps needed before it becomes a law. If it does go all the way through, it could be implemented and enforced as soon as 2017.

In my opinion, the phone industry got it mostly right by itself (a decade late), with one big exception. This comes as too little, too late for me, but it does show that building proprietary connectors for the sake of it is not consumer-friendly and not environment-friendly. Maybe consumers should be allowed to pay $18 for a simple cable if they want to, I’m not against it.

On the other hand, if this was to be the law of the land, I don’t think that it would hurt the industry, or consumers. At worst, it would slow down the adaption of new ports (like micro USB 3.0) since it would require additional legislation. Given how slow that cycle is – that would be manageable.

Filed in Cellphones. Read more about europe, legal and social hit.

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