This was going to be a rant about one of my pet peeves: Why does every electronic device have to have its own power cord and data cable? I am not a great gadget person, but I have accumulated a fair share of doo-hickeys: mobile phones, PDAs, iPods, work computers, GPS navigators, personal computers, cameras, Bluetooth earpieces, telephone headsets, printers… The list goes on and on. Whenever I change one of the devices, I generally need to get a different power adapter and data cable, and start the process of collecting the corresponding power plugs for all the regions I commonly visit. The picture at right is only some of the snakes’ nest of wires I have accumulated over the years. Like many others, I cannot bring myself to throw them away, just in case I can or need to use them again someday.
I have used three different Nokia phones, but even when staying in the same brand, the cables and plugs often change. The only visible difference the last time was that one cable was blue and the other gray, but they only worked with their respective phones. When I go on a trip, I always seem to forget something from the long list of paraphernalia I need to keep all of my various devices fed and communicating with one another. If I don’t forget it, I leave it behind in a hotel somewhere.
Even if the plugs are physically the same, that doesn’t mean they will work. I thought that I could cut down the list of things to carry (and potentially lose) when I saw that my Blackberry phone and my Garmin GPS navigator both used an identical mini-USB cable for charging. I suppose I was lucky that the charger from one “only” didn’t work in the other, and didn’t fry the device.
I find this stupid, wasteful and irritating. Apparently, I am not the only one because an mobile telephone industry group has reached agreement with 17 manufacturers and operators to agree on one standard for phone chargers by 2012. Good news, I suppose but what about the other manufacturers (like Apple, HTC and RIM, to name names notably absent from the GSM Association’s list. Even more importantly, what about all the other devices I use, and what about the data cables used to keep them all talking? The new standard says nothing about these.
OK, maybe that was a bit of a rant. But it got me thinking about why designers and manufacturers do this. I suppose it could be to sell more peripherals. I like to have extra chargers and cables to keep in my travel bag, in the office and at home. The price when buying these things separately certainly does make it look profitable. But I don’t believe in conspiracy theories when there is a simpler explanation. I think that designers honestly think that they are providing better products and innovating the technology by making these seemingly inconsequential changes. Reducing the size of the hole for a phone charger makes it less likely to catch lint and dirt when carried around in your pocket, as well as making all your existing chargers obsolete. A new design could make recharging much faster or require far less electricity. The new cable might look exactly the same, but slightly different pin designs might make transfers much faster or allow more functionality. The optimist in me hopes that this is the case, and they didn’t just randomly change stuff without caring about the consequences. What they don’t realize is that at least for this consumer, the irritation far outweighs the additional functionality.
When software designers make these kinds of changes, they improve the product and most people are happy… IF they stay backwards compatible, or at least provide an easy upgrade path. If the new version of Windows is better than the old one, I might well adopt it, but only if my existing applications still work. I won’t move to a new word processor if it can’t read what I have written up to this point in my life. Why does this not apply to hardware, or at least not to these consumer devices? I would not buy a new computer if it wouldn’t run my existing applications and access the data I’ve accumulated, so that part of the hardware market seems to have gotten the message.
I think (and hope) that it is an issue of maturity. In the early stages of a market when it is intensely competitive, manufacturers will seize on tiny differences to set themselves apart — even when that tiny plastic lip added to hold the cable more securely means that it won’t accept other cables anymore. As the market matures, so do the designers. Interoperability is not a priority when decisions are made based on fashion and fad. I hope that this means that the market, and the designers have grown up enough now to stop being so irritating.