LinuxUser Column 12

It was unexpected but incredibly welcome when Google’s Larry Page had a go at electronic manufacturers during his speech at January’s CES show. Perhaps not as attention grabbing as some other tech CEOs accidently walking into the adult video conference next door and certainly not as fun as Robin Williams adlibbing his usual comedy gold – but Page’s comments were much more important.

Admittedly it’s a little odd to hear a company which is supposedly about search, having views on hardware but the man had a point. Why do all these devices have different, incompatible charger sockets? Page noted that it’s incredibly cheap to put a mini-USB socket on any device and that perhaps it would be a good standard to agree on for chargers. I note that newer BlackBerry models do just this.

I can’t really see what benefits there are for phone, digital camera, MP3 player and console manufacturers to all produce their own charger and socket specifications. Surely it would be cheaper for all suppliers if there was a common charging platform. This wouldn’t preclude firms like Apple innovating on the form of the power brick (smaller, cheaper, whiter).

Road-warriors do have some options to reduce clutter but they’re not ideal. I use something called iGo which lets me charge two devices simultaneously. I purchase ‘tips’ which let the charger plug into my many gadgets. So I have Nokia, BlackBerry and iPod tips. But I still need separate chargers for my JVC video camera and Canon still camera – iGo doesn’t provide tips either due to ignorance of those markets or a refusal of those companies to license the charger specs. The result is a bag heavy with chargers when ideally hotels could just provide mini-USB charging leads as standard – think how easy that would be!

My back can still take the weight of four or five power bricks so it’s more an irritation than a necessity to do away with all these chargers. But in the office where we have 6 external FireWire drives we can get in an awful tangle of leads. The chargers are all similar but not quite the same and each adaptor only powers one drive. So 6 drives means 6 plugs leads, 6 power bricks and 6 output leads to match up with 6 sockets.

It’s untidy and I’m sure one single large adaptor powering all our drives would be much more energy efficient than all the separate adaptors we’re forced to use. Of course it would be a single point of failure but I’d rather keep one spare 6-way adaptor handy than 6 spares for each type of drive.

I’ve thought about this rather a lot you see and so when I heard good old Larry moaning about it I could share in his pain. But what the hell can Google do about it? Not a lot I imagine. In the meantime Apple’s new MacBook Pros have a different power socket so no more borrowing Apple using friends’ chargers unless they all upgrade.

Perhaps I’m worrying needlessly – by all accounts we’re going to be suffering power blackouts soon enough thanks to energy shortages, so I’ll just need to hope Sun’s new enviro-computers are efficient enough to run off the power I can generate while frantically pedalling my exercise bike.

It’s interesting to see this whole power per watt trend play out. Are energy costs going to rise enough in the next 10 years to really change the behaviour of corporate IT purchasing? From what I hear electricity costs, directly due to server consumption and from cooling needs, are already getting painful for some datacenters. Sun’s enviro server push may well be spot on. Seeing their first few ads for this new line made me think of those heady days when some server hosts promised to only be powered by solar panels, What ever happened to them? Are they still going, constantly adding panels as they add servers? I imagine each Xeon server would need about a football field of panels to keep going or am I just being cruel… nah.

So can we ever get a standard for charging? If people step back to see the big, wide angle view then I think we might just be in luck. We’re in a simmering pot of never ending innovation driven by fierce competition. That’s generally good and we don’t want to prevent positive innovations. But when folks begin to recognise that standardising the Internet, electrical sockets, DVDs and so on have unleashed massive amounts of creativity they also begin to see that these standards generated huge financial rewards for many including those who may have first resisted these standards (such as AOL who were late to the Internet game).

It’s ok to stop being original with charger sockets. Let go, that’s right, relax and let go. The time you save there you can put into something else much more exciting and innovative. So let’s work towards energy efficiency and simplicity by offering one standard charger format in as many applications and devices as possible.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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