Good (Threat of) Government
September 2, 2009, 5:13 am
I’ve always imagined the design process of a new mobile phone looks something like this: 1. Take apart the previous model; 2. Add the latest technologies (more RAM, Bluetooth, whatever); 3. Design a shiny new exterior; 4. Create a brand-new charger that won’t work with any other phones.
The folks tasked with Step 4, which I call the Frustration Engineers, will certainly be among the least grieved of the jobs lost during the current economic downturn.
In case you missed the news, which appeared widely just as many Bruxellois left for their annual vacations, 17 mobile manufacturers have signed a letter – called a “Memorandum of Understanding” or MoU – promising to make their new phones compatible with a common charging device, beginning next year.
|Your “mobile phone and charger” will soon be simply your “mobile phone”
In a world where many feel the government is too busy bending its ear to industry lobbyists, there is reason to celebrate and to applaud Günther Verheugen’s not-so-gentle nudge to the phone makers on behalf of European consumers. In short, Verheugen told the industry that if it didn’t act privately, he’d pick up his red phone and order his army of regulators to do what they’ve been trained to do. It’s a case of Good (Threat Of) Government: The change will have tremendous impact on consumers and the environment – without the consequence of hindering innovation by phone makers, an industry in which Europe remains a world leader.
Now that the signatures – which include those of all the major players including Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Apple and Research in Motion – are dry, both the European Commission and the mobile phone industry are doing their best to emphasize the expected “green” impact of the MoU, and rightfully so: One impact study measured the number of new chargers sold worldwide each year not only in numbers (1.2 billion chargers bundled with new phones) but also in weight (51,000 – 82,000 tons per year). These figures only include the ones bundled in boxes with new phones. If you’re like me, you have as many as four chargers for your mobile phone: one at work, one at home, one in your suitcase, and one – the one you had to buy on a business trip when you took a different bag – in a drawer. If you’re married, your spouse has four, as well, because she has a different phone. One couple I know that owns two phones of the same brand has placed “his” and “her” stickers on the transformer bricks to distinguish the ostensibly-identical devices.
For consumers, however, the real victory here is convenience. A recent survey of customers by a California hotel found mobile phone chargers have surpassed razors and toothpaste as the most frequently forgotten item, cited by 31% of its guests. And at most hotels, it’s the one item the front desk cannot supply – until now. Before long, the universal charger will be a standard item in hotel rooms, and now that “do you have a light?” is on its last breath, perhaps “may I use your charger?” will become the icebreaker of choice in airplane cabins and coffee shop queues.
The new standard for chargers will be the “micro” USB adapter – but wait: before we get too excited, this is not the small USB adapter used by Blackberries, cameras and video recorders. That’s the “mini” USB adapter, so don’t think you’ll get away without buying a new one (or two). I’m guessing the price will be higher, but it’s a fair payoff to the phone makers, who have long depended on our absentmindedness to bolster their bottom lines. (I don’t know what percentage of phone makers’ revenue is represented by replacement chargers, but I’d guess it’s similar to the “late fees” slice on a video shop’s pie chart.)
The “micro” adapter is smaller and thinner than the “Mini”, which will give industry greater flexibility in designing the wafer-thin phones of the future. Further, the Commission has made clear that it is flexible about future changes to the “common” adapter if and when technology necessitates it.
In conclusion, rejoice: What is currently, in reality, your “mobile phone and charger” will soon be simply your “mobile phone”.
As for the soon-to-be unemployed Frustration Engineers, fret not. Though their talents may be limited (couldn't they at least design a charger around which the cord would stay wrapped?), there are desks awaiting them somewhere where they can help to meet the ever-richer world's growing demand for laptop computers with incompatible chargers, cars with irreparable bumpers, irregular polyhedral ink jet cartridges and, of course, “uniquely usable” mobile phone batteries. Wherever they go, let's hope DG Enterprise takes a similar interest.
James Rogers is editor of L'Anglophone