The last time you were at an airport, you may have seen a device-charger station. It’s a kiosk with a good two-dozen or so cables so that you can charge just about whatever cell phone, portable music player, or Pocket PC you have. Seems kind of like a waste, doesn’t it? Surely these companies could get together and figure out some sort of universal charger.

Well, the UN is on the case! It has approved a “universal power charger” for cell phones:

The GSMA also estimates that they will reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 13.6m tonnes.

“This is a significant step in reducing the environmental impact of mobile charging,” said Malcolm Johnson, director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau.

“Universal chargers are a common-sense solution that I look forward to seeing in other areas.”

For the technologically uninitiated or for those unfamiliar with the latest cell phone technology, this may sound like quite the achievement. But it’s actually likely to confuse things further and it is embracing a more problematic standard. And at best, it is an unnecessary intervention into an area that was already in the process of sorting itself out.

Anyone that has had cell phones for a while knows of the frustration that comes with differing chargers. You get a cell phone, buy a car charger and an extra wall charger or two, but then when you need to replace your cell phone all of the power adapters are suddenly useless. I avoided this for a while by getting Nokias that held true to the same charger for a while, but then I got a Motorola (courtesy of an inane cell phone insurance policy) and I was out in the cold. By the time I got back to Nokia, they’d switched standards. And, of course, my digital camera and Pocket PC each had proprietary chargers. It’s no wonder that the UN wanted to get involved!

But in recent years, that’s started changing. In my last job, I worked on a dozen or so cell phones from four different manufacturers. Add to that mix a different brand I use at home and two other brands I’ve looked at recently. Between these seven manufacturers (and if I wasn’t so lazy I could rack up a lot more brands, I’m positive), they used all of two different chargers: All but two of the brands used a single standard: Mini-USB. The remaining two used Micro-USB.

This is a great thing for the consumer. Not only do you not have to worry about chargers becoming useless when you buy a new phone, but it becomes a lot easier to replace a charger on the fly when you need to. I lost my digital camera USB-to-device cable years ago and it cost $25 to get a new one. A Mini-USB cable you can get for less than $5. You had to order the digital camera cable from Minolta or an online retailer that got them from Minolta. You can get a Mini-USB cable at Best Buy (though you lose most of the price advantage). On the Micro-USB side, you see similar advantages. On most Plantronics headsets, they come with a Plantronics-proprietary charger. The good news is that Plantronics chargers are universal so if you use a lot of Plantronics earpieces or headsets, you have a lot of chargers. But they can cost $20 or so to replace and a new earpiece costs $25! Meanwhile, some Plantronics earpieces use Micro-USB and you can replace those for under $10 (though not, alas, at Best Buy).

The Mini-USB is becoming the standard. It’s not only used on a lot of cell phones, but also on PC-to-device connections for a load of other devices. For instance, Motorola Bluetooth headsets also use Mini-USB, as do portable card readers. It’s extremely handy to be able to buy a Mini-USB cable and know that it can be used for a bunch of devices. And they’re still cheaper. Widely adopted. And cheaper. Happy day!

The UN, in its ultimate wisdom, has endorsed the Micro-USB. The Micro-USB does have its advantages. The connection is smaller and so it can go not only on smaller cell phones, but also to devices like bluetooth earpieces. Motorola used the Mini, but Motorola’s was a full-on headset. I have a Plantronics earpiece that uses a Micro. The article implies that the Micro is being used on digital cameras. That may be true since my digital camera is pretty old, though digital cameras are generally large enough that the Mini would work just as well.

The bigger problem I have with the Micro is that it is weaker. I had three devices (out of over 100) that had the USB connection ports break and all three were Micro-USB connections. This despite the majority of devices I used using Mini connections. While it could be the particular model is itself problematic and not the Micro-USB in general, I think has more to do with the fact that the Micro-USB port is smaller and therefore more prone to break if tugged in the wrong direction. The Mini-USB just feels sturdier. If it were just the chargers that would break, that wouldn’t be such a big deal, but when something went awry, it was the device (which cost my putative employer thousands of dollars and will cost the consumer hundreds). That’s problematic. They’re also a little bit more expensive, though that may simply be because they’re not as widely used.

The article suggests that Micro-USB chargers have particularly good power conservation and movement and though I did not notice that it may well be true. Or they could be comparing Micro-USB to other proprietary standards. It’s also possible that, as devices continue to get smaller, the Micro-USB will make more sense than the Mini-USB. However, since smartphones have become graphic-oriented, there is only so small that they can make these things. On the third hand, the main device that I tested that used the Micro-USB was wicked-thin and a Mini-USB would have had trouble fitting on it. And maybe as technology progresses, they will figure out a way to make the Micro-USB less prone to break. So it’s a tough call.

Ultimately, though, I don’t view two distinct standards as being a real problem. I think that this is one of those cases where it’s best to let the market decide. If you have a Mini-USB and you buy a Micro-USB phone, somebody somewhere can use your current cables or you will probably need them in the future so you don’t need to throw them out. Ditto the other way.

The real problem is the use of proprietary technology, which is diminishing and not going to be pushed all that much further by the UN. Two holdouts include Apple and Hewlett Packard. In the latter case, they are coming from a position of weakness but they do have a somewhat loyal following so maybe they can get away with not switching. However, HP has notably stuck with the same standard for as long as I can remember, so loyal HP customers are free to accumulate chargers without fear that they will go to waste. As for Apple… well, they like doing things their own way and the UN isn’t going to change that. From what I understand, Apple itself is standardizing its chargers between the iPod and iPhone, so loyal Appleheads will need to worry about that less in the future.

I’m sure that there are other holdouts, but as more and more people get used to universal chargers, they’re going to have to make tough decisions. Maybe they will adopt Mini-USB or Micro-USB standards or maybe they won’t. But at the very least, people will have a choice as to what to do. For my part, with the exception of HP (which I already have numerous chargers for), I am going to be pretty reluctant to get a product that I would have to buy a whole new set of chargers for.

Update: I’ve learned a couple new things since writing this. First, HP now uses mini-USB, so their proprietary standard is gone. Second, I talked to the guy at Verizon to get a feel for their offerings and he says that Verizon is applying pressure on cell phone makers to adopt Micro-USB. Also, Blackberry, which I had believed to use Mini-USB, actually uses Micro. I still believe that Mini is the superior standard, but it looks like it’s a closer race than I thought and may have already been shifting towards Micro.


Category: Market

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

4 Responses to UNnecessary Intervention

  1. rob says:

    I for one am ecstatic that we live in a world where the most pressing issue is charger compatibility. You know what people say: widget charger incompatibility is the root of all evil.

    More seriously, the UN needs to crawl before it can fly. Working on an unimportant but real problem will give them some experience in actually doing stuff. They can refine their performance on easy things. Hard things have too many variables to just flail around and hit a winning combination. If the UN can do one thing well, they’ll build up some credit for taking on harder stuff.

    If a mini-USB port is better on large enough devices, there might be a market for power adapter-adapters. Micro>mini so that if something breaks, it’s just the cord or charger. Universal charger + cable is more convienint than 2 universal charger types.

  2. trumwill says:

    For some reason, USB adapters never took off. The ones I had at Mindstorm were all really old. There may be a technical reason for this, but my guess is that it’s so cheap to buy a completely new cable that it’s not worth buying an adapter. This applies to both Micro and Mini-USB although the latter more than the former.

    The important part, to me, is that since both Micro and Mini are standards and there is competition on cable pricing, the deed is done. One standard, two standards, that matters a lot less than that a cable costs $5 instead of $20.

  3. web says:

    Part of the trick is the astounding number of companies that use exactly the same charger, but a proprietary jack end (for example, the “charging” pin for both the iPod and iPhone is a plain old USB 5V-compatible connection, but they rewire it to a proprietary plug on the other end).

    There’s no excuse for this except to force people to fork over a lot more money than they would in a non-proprietary market.

  4. trumwill says:

    Web,

    Yeah, that’s Apple being Apple. Every other major player I know of at this point is on the same page, though, at least as far as their smartphones go. Before the Micro and Mini standards became prevalent, I think that the makers had more of a case that using a proprietary standard was necessary (the device being too small for a standard USB port). But when Mini and Micro came around, I think they saw the writing on the wall.

    -{Comment modified by Trumwill for brevity}-

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