We’ve all been there – every time we’ve bought a mobile phone it comes with a lumpen black charger, and you can bet the plug on the end of the cable will be different for just about every mobile phone you’ve ever bought. Hence loads of useless chargers hanging around in drawers.

So, EU to the rescue!

Why not chivvy all mobile phone operators to adopt a common standard, meaning that any charger can charge any mobile phone, and then it will not be necessary to bundle a charger with every new phone?

So that’s what the EU has done with the One Charger for All initiative. But – sadly – as with so much to do with the EU it’s not all it may seem.

Basically from this year on all “data-enabled mobile phones” (i.e. ones that can do more than calling and SMS – so nearly all of them) will use the Micro USB standard for charging. This makes sense – many smart phones already connect to USB ports on computers for data sync and charging anyway, and chargers that use Micro USB are already common for everything from sports watches to digital cameras.

However the devil is to be found in FAQ 6 on the Commission’s website about the initiative:

Which is the agreed common interface?

On the basis of the Micro-USB interface, the companies have agreed to develop a common specification in order to allow for full compatibility of chargers and mobile phones. These specifications have been translated in European standards.
N.B. The agreement allows for the use of an adaptor. (my emphasis)

This means that all chargers have to be Micro USB compatible – i.e. that they all output the standard 5volts for USB. But the cable you then connect to your phone can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. So your iPhone will retain it’s dock port, a Sony Ericsson will retain its plug, Nokia, Samsung etc. can all keep their own systems as well.

So this initiative has solved one problem – incompatible chargers – and just left us with another slightly less environmentally challenging but just as confusing situation – incompatible adaptors (meaning – in practice – cables). Well done Commission and industry lobbyists – you’ve managed to cook up a system which means each side can claim victory but a real decisive step forward for customers – the same charging port on every phone – has been missed.

[UPDATE – 1800]
I’ve just been pointed in the direction of this document by @simonblackley. It states “The cable assembly shall terminate in a Micro-B plug. The plug shall meet the USBIF Connector Test Requirements“. OK, so that defines the cable coming out of the universal charger and may mean the replaceable cables I mention above might not come to pass. But I do not read that as meaning all mobile phones have to have this plug on the mobile phone itself. So I think the gist of my original post stands…

15 Comments

  1. Dear Jon,
    I thought your blog was also dedicated to inform your readers. Of course we know you know. Hence, your post, as you say.
    But because Web is conversation, and a blog aims at sharing this conversation with our readers, we posted a comment on your precious post, instead of contacting you directly.
    We do not pretend that by posting comments on blogs like yours will make the initiative a success. But by spreading the information, sharing the news with the European citizens, it helps making it more real.
    Thank you again, thus, for opening your comments to our note.

  2. An important point – cheers, Simon.

  3. Simon Blackley

    It’s worth pointing out that this is NOT a case of EU regulation restricting the freedom of the market! No new legislation is involved. What the Commission did was to broker an agreement between manufacturers. The agreement is legally binding, but it was entered into entirely voluntarily. It was the manufacturers who designed the standard.

  4. @1charger4all – Yes, I have seen that! How else do you you think I managed to even do the research to put together the blog entry? Just having some social media promotion doesn’t mean the 1 Charger initiative is going to work…

  5. 1charger4all

    As from this year indeed, European Citizens can have a same charger even if they have a different data-enabled mobile phone ! EU Commission set up a dedicated communication campaign. Check this out :
    http://www.onechargerforall.eu 
    http://twitter.com/1charger4all

    And become a FAN on our Facebook Page…

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/One-charger-for-all/128181040582829

  6. If the EU can make things more compatible and interchangeable this is good news for the consumer, the environment and everyday life. This is the sort of common sense reason why I believe the EU is necessary.

  7. @Martin – Now, now. It was a poorly formulated question, so don’t be TOO surprised it didn’t get a specific answer. To be honest, I didn’t even originally consider it a genuine question – I just thought it was an insult being carelessly flung my way. That was why I ignored it, and not due to some some bizaare underhand debating technique as you insinuate.

    “Do you have *any* theory whatsoever about the limits of legitimate public action?”

    Yes, I do. I believe in using the minimum amount of regulation necessary to ensure proper functioning of the market + to regulate externalities (such as environmental costs) and ensure basic labour standards. However, the EU’s single market is a particularly large and complex market (in fact, it’s the biggest on the planet) and it was already starting from a segmented position; it makes sense that regulation will be needed to break down, for example, non-tariff barriers.

    In general, I prefer an unregulated approach. However, sometimes that is not good enough. Classic example: compare the telecoms markets in the US and EC in the 1980s. Look at the unregulated approach of the US versus the regulated approach of the EC. There is a reason the European GSM is the standard today.

  8. Martin Keegan

    Ah yes, an equivocal answer to the first question, which distracts attention from failure to answer the second, re legitimate limits of public action. Answering this might be embarrassing, as one must consider the legitimate limits of the activity of European authorities too.

  9. @Martin – look at where we are with electric plugs in different European countries. It’s a complete mess, but it would be too costly to change it (either via regulation or via agreement among the private sector). For mobile phones it’s different – people change their phones, so if all new ones had the same charging port you’re sorted. The idea in itself, however it were to be achieved, is not a bad one – it’s not unfriendly to business AND it’s good for the environment and for consumers.

  10. @Martin – When I’m speaking as a consumer, I don’t care how it’s done – whether by the private sector or through regulation. My answer to your question would be: no, I don’t want governments involved in the design of consumer products. However, as a consumer, standardised plugs across Europe would make my life easier.

    But this is a pipe dream. It’s not going to happen. The private sector can’t do it, and the EU won’t regulate it (and I’m not arguing that it should).

  11. Martin Keegan

    Do we really want governments involved in the design of consumer products?

    Do you have *any* theory whatsoever about the limits of legitimate public action?

  12. Can we have one plug socket for all, please?

    These things are almost impossible to change once the horse is out of the stables. Still – it would make my life a lot easier if I didn’t have to worry so much about adapters.

  13. @Valéry – it might not be great industrial design, but why not have 2 ports on a phone? If each manufacturer wants an all-singing, all-dancing port as well as the Micro USB one for charging, so be it. This initiative is surely about basic needs – getting charge into the battery – and nothing more than that.

    @Helena – I suspect lobbyists are at least as much to blame…

  14. Helena

    My god! I was really looking forward to a one-charger world… If it wouldn’t be so ANNOYING this typical slice of EU would actually be rather funny

  15. Valéry

    “the same charging port on every phone”

    Wouldn’t such a policy prevent innovation ? I guess the iphone tech people did not design their system for the single purpose to be incompatible, did they ?

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