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Dream of harmonized USB chargers seems to be failing

by on31 March 2012

Little dongly things are here to stay

Back in the good old days of Y2K fear mongering, before we had to take our shoes off at airports or endure the horror of back-to-back reality shows, the great Douglas Adams wrote a prophetic rant about little dongly things. Like many tech connoisseurs, Adams lamented about the lack of a proper DC standard, which resulted in the proliferation of proprietary wall chargers, power bricks and adaptors of all shapes and sizes that made the lives of all geeks on the go a misery. All he wanted was a single charger for his gizmos. Was it really too much to ask for?

A decade later, European lawmakers and the tech industry finally took up the challenge and after some bickering agreed to harmonize phone chargers, which are now based on the ubiquitous USB standard. The late Douglas Adams would have been glad to see it all unfold, but a couple of years on, he would probably be having a good laugh at our expense, if you happen to believe in the great beyond, of course. Adams, who famously claimed to have come up with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after waking up in a ditch, hung-over on a few pints of cheap Austrian beer, had a sound idea, a great idea. Charging and powering all sorts of gizmos using a single charger, a standardized charger to be exact – it sounded great back then, prophetic even, yet now we seem to take it for granted. Of course, in the hectic world of tech, certain concepts that “sounded like a good idea at the time” have a tendency to turn into cock-ups of epic proportions. As many of you probably know, such ironic twists are a recurring theme in Adams’s alternative universe.

Fast-forward to 2012. Thanks to Eurocrats and industry leaders, smartphones and tablets nowadays ship with USB chargers, rated at about 1000 miliamps and third party chargers can deliver in excess of 2000mAh. In most cases stock chargers do a decent job and your shiny new toy will be brimmed up in an hour or two. However, flashy superphones boast 2000mAh batteries, and the  huge Samsung Galaxy Note rocks a 2500mAh unit. Things are even worse in the tablet world. The new iPad is thicker than its predecessor for a reason - it packs an 11,600mAh battery. That’s enough to power a small notebook and it is safe to assume that next generation Android or Windows tablets with hi-res screens will need just as much juice, if not more.


Now how about connecting one of these beasts to a bog standard 500mAh USB power source? Nothing fancy, you don’t have to rummage around your hardware drawer for ancient power adaptors, just try out your old USB charger, your old notebook or office rig. Sure, the micro-USB plug will fit, and you will charge your new gizmo. Eventually. It will take forever, forever more if you believe Roisin Murphy. USB 3.0 should also speed things along, but that is beside the point, as most consumers and companies will stick with USB 2.0 for years to come. Not that long ago, feature phones shipped with 700-900mAh batteries, and back then plain USB could have done a great job. But today, with 720p screens, WiFi, 4G, constant syncing and bloated operating systems running on power hungry dual-core chips, you wouldn’t get that far with a 700mAh battery. In fact, we don’t get too far with 1400mAh or more.

Don’t get me wrong, harmonizing phone chargers was a great idea and I still love the fact that I can charge my tablet or phone almost anywhere. In fact, I don’t even bother to pack any chargers when I hit the road, and I do so quite often. I am guessing I’m not alone. Also, we can take some solace in the fact that standardization cuts waste and supposedly helps the environment, and we all love polar bears, don’t we?

It took the industry (and legislators) almost a decade to work out a way to harmonize DC chargers, and from the looks of things, it all came a few years too late. Technology is simply moving too fast. Adams was way ahead of his time, the industry was not - the industry was too late. A couple of years down the road we will be microwaving our testes with even more powerful smartphones, with beefed up tablets neatly tucked away in our backpacks or suitcases.

Now how about connecting one of those beasts to a bog standard 500mAh USB 2.0 power source?

Last modified on 31 March 2012
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