Walt Mossberg

It’s Time to Reduce The Tangle of Wires We Use for Gadgets

I was interviewing Howard Stringer, the CEO of Sony, on stage at The Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” conference a few weeks ago, when domestic guru Martha Stewart rose to ask a question. Dipping into a shopping bag full of charger cords and electrical adapters for the electronic devices she carries — laptop, cellphone, digital camera, BlackBerry — Ms. Stewart asked Mr. Stringer why each device requires a different, and incompatible, charger.

“Why can’t this thing be this thing?” she asked, holding up two identical-looking, but very different, charger cables. The audience of high-tech executives, identifying with her complaint, applauded.

Mr. Stringer, to his credit, said he, too, sometimes felt he was drowning in cables. He said he had been unable to locate some medication in his briefcase on his flight to the conference because the pills were buried under a rat’s nest of cables and adapters for his various Sony gadgets. “So, I’m my own victim,” he said. “I think it’s a fair question.”

He then ventured a guess as to why Sony and others sell so many different chargers and adapters: “I have a sneaking suspicion it’s because the last three years, the most profitable business at Sony was the component division,” which makes such accessories. When the crowd laughed, he said: “I’m serious.”

The conversation led me to look at the tangled collection of cables and chargers — and spare batteries — I lug around everywhere, and ask why there isn’t much more standardization of these things. We are decades into the portable-electronics revolution. These aren’t novel devices anymore. Why aren’t there widely observed industry standards for the batteries and electrical chargers for these gadgets?

The problem is threefold. First, batteries, unlike in many analog devices, aren’t held to common standards and aren’t interchangeable. Next, electrical adapters and charger cables vary widely. Last, plugs and sockets for the cables, unlike those for electric appliances or phones, aren’t universal.

Besides Mr. Stringer’s answer that there are big profits in selling cables and batteries, with margins that can exceed those of the gadgets they power, there is another major reason. Some companies see the size, shape and weight of their batteries and chargers as a competitive design advantage.

Motorola’s superslim Razr phone wouldn’t be as svelte if it used the same battery as a conventional phone. Lenovo’s slender electrical adapters are a plus for its ThinkPad laptops over the bulkier ones of its competitors. The sleek laptops from makers like Sony and Apple depend on special battery designs.

But the profusion of batteries and adapters goes well beyond a few extra-cool models. Dell’s Web site lists 57 different power adapters for its laptops and 61 different laptop batteries. Most of these laptops are unremarkable commodity models, similar to many competitive machines.

The Nokia Web site lists pages of batteries and adapters for its cellphones. Some are so expensive that Nokia posts a prominent notice saying, “a new Nokia phone may cost you less than a battery, after rebates, with a new wireless-service plan.”

It seems to me that the majority of common laptops, cameras and phones could evolve toward using a few standard battery and charger designs that could be made by third-party battery companies and sold at drugstores. I’m talking about the large category of devices that aren’t aimed at the small, high-end sliver of the market willing to pay more for ultraslim or unusual designs. Those elite models might still use special batteries and chargers, but why can’t 80% of these things use standard parts?

And there’s no reason at all I can discern, other than greed or stubbornness, why even different chargers and adapters can’t use the same connectors or jacks. Last week, my wife bought a new Sprint Samsung phone to replace one only a couple of years old. The salesman told her the new phone would work with her existing travel and car chargers. But when she opened the box, she discovered it had an entirely different connector for the charger, and that she’d have to buy new ones.

Similarly, I recently replaced my old PowerBook laptop from Apple with a new MacBook Pro model. It uses a totally different charger with a new magnetic connector that’s supposed to break away when you trip over the power cord, instead of pulling the laptop onto the floor. It’s a good idea, but not so valuable — for me, at least — as to be worth tossing out the several spare Apple laptop chargers I had bought for travel and for various locations around the house. New spare chargers cost $79 each.

There are some third-party products, like Mobility Electronics’ iGo, that function as universal chargers and power adapters for all of your gadgets. They have multiple cables and accept a variety of tips that fit different connectors. But the tips for your particular device can be hard to find and easy to lose.

We need fewer types of connectors, cables and batteries, not more accessories to buy.

Right on, Martha.


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