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The Universal Cell Phone Charger

Cell phone with chargerHow many cell phone chargers have you thrown away in the last ten years? Not sure myself but a French study says that 2-3 million cell phone chargers become obsolete every month. The GSM Association says discarded chargers currently generate more than 51,000 tons of waste per year. Closets and drawers are strewn with old chargers and worse yet some of us have chargers plugged in that don’t need to be because the phone is already fully charged. Chargers, chargers everywhere, but relief may be on the way.
The mobile phone industry group has announced that 17 wireless operators and handset makers have agreed to standardize chargers by 2012 for most of the cell phones they sell. The chargers would be interchangeable, evenutally making it possible to charge any phone that you own and new phones that you buy with the same charger. Imagine one small efficient charger in the kitchen that all family members could use as needed.
The initial group of companies that have joined the initiative include 3 Group, AT&T Inc., KTF, LG, mobilkom austria, Motorola Inc., Nokia Corp., Orange, Qualcomm Inc., Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Telecom Italia, Telefonica SA, Telenor, Telstra, T-Mobile and Vodafone PLC. The new standardized chargers would use the micro USB interface — which is smaller than the more commonly used mini USB connector but has already been adopted in a few handsets, including the BlackBerry Storm. The new chargers will also meet higher energy efficiency targets — with up to 50% energy savings achieved by cutting back power use when on standby. That is the good news. The bad news is that the GSM Association — which has limited authority over the vendors — has set the goal to have "the majority of all new mobile phone models" supporting the new chargers by January 1, 2012. That would be triple or more of the product design cycle for introducing new phones. The other bad news is that although an impressive list of companies has commited to the new standard, some key players are noticeable by their absence — namely Apple, which is clinging to the legacy iPod connector, RIM and Palm.
Why isn’t the goal 100% and why can’t we get there sooner than 2012? European countries would prefer to use regulation to get the job done and there is certainly an argument for it. It was that line of thinking that created GSM phones that now work in most countries of the world. Standards definitely work — that is why the Internet is the great resource that it is. It has been the U.S. that has been behind thanks to lack of competition, far too many lobbyists, and an FCC which is a politicial entity. Nevertheless, when it comes to power chargers I prefer a market based approach to a government mandated approach. Some will argue — probably Apple — that being forced to have the same power connector as everyone else will eliminate innovation. Maybe they will find a way that by just placing your iPhone near your Mac that electrons will jump through the air and charge the iPhone — no charger, no connector. Maybe someone will invent a picture that hangs on the wall that emits electrical energy and can charge any device in the room — no chargers, no connectors. MIT has successfully moved energy wirelessly — albeit not very much and not very far. In the meantime I think the market will work. Let’s say Palm heldout and was the only mobile phone producer that did not use the standard connector and required a unique charger. I would think their market share would decline. I predict Apple will be the only holdout.