If you live with lots of people, odds are you have an outlet strip in a common area chock-a-block with varying cellphone chargers. Maybe not for long. Last week, 17 cellphone makers and carriers announced a universal charging solution (UCS), an effort to create a single charger standard with a microUSB (or Micro-USB) jack.
This sounds like a great idea. You get one charger and never need another one, no matter what phone you buy. Lose or forget your charger and you can just buy another one without worrying about which phone model you own. The folks behind the standard say this will help save the planet by reducing the number of chargers that need to be manufactured and disposed of, and that the new chargers will be more energy efficient.
On the surface, this is an altruistic effort with laudable logistic and ecological goals. Beneath the surface, however, it looks as if cellphone makers have found a way to make more money from us and to block real logistical and ecological technology advancements.
Read on to see if my cynicism is justified.
As a cellphone reviewer, I love the idea of a universal cellphone charger. My apartment is lousy with chargers, including far too many unidentified orphans — many companies don't emboss their chargers with their logo or name. I got myself a Chargepod, which helps alleviate my charger clutter. While effective, it's not the future-looking solution I was hoping for. But we'll get to that in a minute.
A Small Universe
First, let's lose the rosy view that "universal" actually means universal. UCS is being promoted by the GSM Association (GSMA). In the U.S., this affects phones from AT&T and T-Mobile. But what about CDMA phones, such as those from Verizon and Sprint? Will CDMA carriers voluntarily adopt standards promoted by the GSMA? Since carriers in the U.S. have the final say on how a phone they sell is configured, that's an open question. Half the cellphone universe isn't in UCS territory.
Shrinking the UCS further is the likelihood Apple will not be part of this agreement. Apple already has its own "universal" charger — the iPod connector, which has been used on every iPod since 2001 and, more importantly, on thousands of iPod and iPhone-compatible products. Apple and its accessory partners are married to the iPod connector. Cellphone makers are merely casually dating their jacks. For Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, LG, et al., telling their proprietary jacks that they're just not that into them isn't big a deal.
In some ways, this could be a way for all these other music-video-Web-enabled cellphones to close the accessory gap with iPhone. A single microUSB jack standard opens the market for a flood of microUSB-enabled accessories that would work with any microUSB-equipped phone, raising the overall value of individual microUSB-enabled phones.
No Charger for You!
But these are inside-baseball kinds of arguments. How would this universal charger help you? As far as I'm concerned, not only doesn't UCS help you, it'll actually cost you more money. Here are five reasons why I'm not charged up over this proposed universal charging solution.
One: I have no figures on this, but my gut tells me that if you buy, say, a Motorola, a Nokia, a Samsung or an LG cellphone, and you like it, you're likely to replace it with another Motorola or Nokia or Samsung or LG phone, which means you don't need a universal charger. Just use the charger you bought with your previous phone. But, yes, many cellphone makers use different jacks on different models, which leads me to…
Two: A universal charger won't un-chock-a-block your charger-filled outlet strip. What do you think — everyone in the house is going to share one charger? You'll still need a charger for every cellphone in your home.
Three: Where will you get these new universal chargers? Sure, every cellphone comes with a charger. Now. But once this standard is adopted, kiss that nicety goodbye. Why would a cellphone maker spend money to include a charger with your phone if they can just make you buy a universal charger?
Don't believe me? If you hadn't noticed, most cellphone makers no longer include earbuds with their phones. There are enough people who don't use them to justify the makers simply 86-ing them altogether. Cellphone makers will use any excuse to lower their costs.
Four: Once you're forced to buy one charger, there's a good chance you'll buy more than one. You'll buy a charger for home, you'll buy one for the office, maybe you'll even buy one for the car. If you're a frequent traveler, you might even buy one to toss into your travel kit so you don't forget it when you pack for a trip. That's not a bad thing, but it plays into the hands of the cellphone makers.
Five: The deadline for UCS compliance isn't until Jan. 1, 2012. Who knows what will happen to cellphone technology in intervening three years to preempt the UCS? Cellphones could all be shrunk small enough to be combined with a Bluetooth headset to create an all-in-one cellphone/Bluetooth earpiece, which means a microUSB jack might be too big. With new iPhones coming every year, by 2012 Apple could dominate the cellphone business like it does the digital music player market, forcing everyone to adopt the iPod connector.
Wired Connections Are So 2009
Okay, that's silly (I think). More realistically, in three years cellphones could become solar powered, and/or conductive or magnetic-induction charging could become wildly popular. Just stick your phone in the sun or lay it on a charging pad. Not only won't you need any charger, universal or otherwise, but solar and wireless charging are way more convenient and carbon-friendly than the proposed UCS.
Nice thought, GSMA, but if you're really serious about compatibility and our carbon footprint, why not work on getting rid of the wired charger altogether?