Wk3: Adapt or Die – is USB the new AC/DC?

USB wall socket by SockItz

A small, not heavily reported, revolution happened last year. It’s one that’s bound to have bigger ramifications. The USB wall socket power-point arrived.

Charging and power will be the last battle for the Wire. Wireless internet, wireless keyboards and mice, wireless speakers – the wire has almost been killed off. Except in the area of actually charging and powering things.

The story of electricity and wall sockets is a long and twisted one. When electricity first came to Britain there was no standard. A power plug in London would differ to one in Manchester. That might seem funny and old-hat now, but we haven’t gone that far.

Adaptors are still big business. Most major regions in the world have their own system – and sometimes their own voltage. Even getting the shape of your plug right is not enough. There has been a small movement towards a global standard but the it hasn’t caught on.

Which brings me to one of the truisms of technology – if you stand divided, something new is going to come and bowl you over.

And the world of wall sockets and chargers does stand divided. I’m sure I’m like most people, and own dozens of chargers for all sorts of things. And for most of the time, it’s one charger for one device.

The charger that comes for most mobile phones charge at such a low rate that it’s useless for anything else. My external hard-drive and my portable iPod speakers take the same charge. Sadly the pin connector are different sizes. I wish the laptop charger I keep permanently plugged-in could plug straight into my iPod, but alas I have to have the laptop on.

Then of course, there are the devices I bought in other countries.

I understand the differences in voltage. I understand that design plays it’s role. But I also see that I have dozens of devices all designed to do the same thing – get power into a device – and no one has yet put them together.

Maybe USB is the thing that will bowl over this divided technology. I think we can see this happening in all sorts of places.

Take the Japanese mobile phone. In Japan, the GSM network does not exist, meaning most phones outside of Japan do not work in Japan. So – will Japan adopt GSM? Or will non-Japanese networks adopt the Japanese technology? It’s no to both. A bigger technology will come along and do the work of both. That technology was 3G.

(And as much as 4G is being worked on, surely Wi-Fi will kill it?)

It’s the same way with power plugs. I think USB is the answer for the immediate future. We are already heading down that road.

I have a bunch of adapters, and quite a few things to charge when I travel (a phone, a Blackberry, an iPod and a laptop usually). But thanks to the laptop, I only need one adapter. Everything else is charged through the USB ports on my computer.

Which is one step away from having a USB power board. Which is one step away from plugging the USB cable straight into the wall. Which is where the world is going.

Some of the nicer hotels in the world already offer a USB power plug. Companies like FastMac and Sockitz offer a home solution to replace or augment your existing wall sockets. Some new houses in Silicon Valley have a couple of USB wall sockets as standard.

The EU also passed a law last year, finally standardising mobile phone chargers, using the micro-USB technology (that is, micro-USB to plug into the phone, not the wall). No more needing a new phone charger for every phone you own. You can use your old micro-USB charger, and plug it into a computer. And it doesn’t have to be phones. It can be any micro-USB powered device (like some cameras).

At the very least, not every mobile phone in the EU has to come with a new charger every time. Which can only be good for the environment. The dumping of electronics is a big and dangerous business (see links below).

Another charging technology that is emerging is the charging mat. Basically a small, safe, mat that you can keep on your desk that charges your mobile devices. Most times your mobile devices needs a case that works with the mat. Without plugging anything in, you can place your cased device on the mat, and it will charge.

It speaks to one of the great problems with USB, which is that fucking wire. I hate wires. I really do. The future of the charging mat is uncertain – so far the uptake has been slow as the devices seem too niche and expensive. But it’s the wireless thing that people love, and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Also last year, student Min-Kyu Choi won the British Insurance design award for his folding plug. It’s pretty clever. It beat out lots of great ideas, because his idea was so simple, and so startling. It goes to show that the power plug can still be improved. And that in it’s current state it is a problem. And I’m glad clever people are still looking at it.

Obviously you can’t replace all the plugs in your home with USB ports today. But that day is coming. Technology keeps improving. Battery life will improve. Charging times will improve. Standards though, that needs committee.

But I’m sure we can all agree on this: We are sick of owning that many chargers. We are sick of playing around with adapters. We are sick of tripping on wires.

And if the USB port can’t get it’s act together, something else will come along and bowl that over too.

USB wall socket examples. Fastmac (http://www.padgadget.com/2011/01/19/fastmacs-clever-u-socket-usb-wall-outlet-now-shipping/) and Sockitz (http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2010/08/sockitz-gives-your-powerpoints-added-usb-charging-goodness/)

Story about the EU adopting a micro USB standard (http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/eu-adopts-microusb-cell-phone-charger-standard/)

Min-Kyu Choi’s folding plug (http://www.geek.com/articles/gadgets/folding-plug-wins-british-design-award-20100317/).

An example charging mat – the Powermat. (http://www.cnet.com.au/powermat-wireless-charger-339302172.htm)

Finally, an NPR story about the environmental impact of trashing electronic devices. I only touched on the subject, but it hits home that the less we create, the better it is for everyone. (http://www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132204954/after-dump-what-happens-to-electronic-waste)

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