Yesterday the GSM Association announced, surprisingly, that they had reached an agreement on a universal standard charging system for cellphones--and a large number of major manufacturers have signed up. But is it actually a good idea?
Considered from a purely environmental basis, it's a major success. The idea of having a common standard for chargers means cellphones can be shipped without a charger unit. That instantly saves on the production of billions of power bricks, reduces size and weight of packaging, and transportation costs as a result. The environmental benefits of that are unarguable--and the new standard even aims at a 50% reduction in the standby energy consumption of the charger brick.
As a consumer, one benefit is also obvious: You'll be able to find many more places to charge your phone. Gone will be the cry of "Does anyone have a Samsung cellphone charger?" across the office when someone's battery goes flat: any charger will work.
But there's one sticking point: the GSMA's agreement, signed by Nokia, LG, AT&T, Vodafone, Motorola and others, has settled on the microUSB connector as the new standard.
And that's not necessarily a 100% smart choice. MicroUSB does have its benefits: It's small, it's an existing agreed standard, and allows for relatively fast data transfers between PCs and cellphones. And it's powerful enough to charge a small battery fairly quickly.
But considering how cellphones are evolving into smartphones, microUSB has its limitations. Many high-end smartphones are pushing towards full media capabilities. They have audio and video outputs with many--such as the iPhone--pushing composite video out over their connectors. Some are even offering HDTV feeds and surround-sound signals. Attaching peripherals (FM transmitters, for example) to smartphones requires a sturdy physical connection--something connection standards like Sony Ericsson's and Apple's have, but that microUSB lacks.
When it comes to multimedia, microUSB isn't as good as, say, the iPod connector used by Apple. It's notable that Apple is absent from the list of adherents to the new standard. And you can see why: as the number one MP3 seller, Apple's established the iPhone connector as a de facto standard of its own. Many speaker systems, and car integration units offer it as a standard way to mate portable devices.
As a result of the universal standard, smartphone makers may well end up incorporating both a micro USB adaptor, and a proprietary one for specialist data transfers to their devices. That'll require at least an extra lead or two in the box, losing some of the environmental benefit, and placing a constraint on product designs. Maybe that's why those cellphone makers who agreed to the standard have only promised "the majority" of cellphones will use the connector by 2012, and avoided a binding agreement.