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Unpicking the cable mess

There are so many different chargers and cables available now that Billy MacInnes is wondering how we got into this state

There’s something almost beautifully allegorical about the messy situation created by the plethora of chargers adopted by mobile phone, tablet and digital camera manufacturers over the years. It says something that is inherently true about so much of the IT, phone and electronics industry.

I have no idea how many charging cables there are lying around in boxes in our house, but I know there are far too many. Time was when it seemed each different brand of phone or digital camera seemed to come with its own charging connection.

It was almost as if, after expending large amounts of time and resources to create the best product they could at any given moment to stand out from its competitors, the manufacturers decided the pièce de résistance would be to make it impossible to charge without its own unique cable.

How bizarre is that type of rationale? To come up with a product that you believe will outcompete similar products because of its features, price and performance (and so on), and then somehow to view making it harder to charge – literally to connect to power so that it can work and users can appreciate its features and performance – as an additional advantage.

It’s a poor state of affairs when one of the worst things that can happen for people who buy a new gadget is to lose the charger cable because they can’t use any of the multitude of cables they already own as a replacement. All for the sake of what? Locking customers in to a specific charger cable and making them pay more for the privilege of using your device?

Imagine if every car manufacturer insisted on a different size nozzle for people to refuel their cars with petrol or diesel and drivers had to search for a petrol station with a specific fuel nozzle to match their car? How strange would that be? More importantly, how sustainable would it be?

So it’s good news that the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee recently announced new rules specifying all small and medium-sized electronic gadgets rechargeable with a wired cable would need to be fitted with a USB Type-C port, regardless of manufacturer.

This covers mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers in a bid to address product sustainability and reduce electronic waste. Half a billion chargers for portable devices are shipped in Europe each year, generating 11,000 to 13,000 tonnes of e-waste.

Rapporteur Alex Agius Saliba (MT, S&D) argued a single charger for mobile phones and other small and medium-sized electronic devices would benefit everyone. “It will help the environment, further help the re-use of old electronics, save money, and reduce unnecessary costs and inconvenience for both businesses and consumers,” he added.

The committee is also calling for interoperability of wireless charging technologies by 2026 and an improvement on information given to consumers by way of dedicated labels. Saliba said it was also “expanding the proposal’s scope by adding more products, such as laptops, that will need to comply with the new rules”. MEPs have began talks with EU governments on the legislation after the European Parliament approved the draft negotiating position in May.

It’s hard to argue with what the committee is trying to achieve here. Some will try, no doubt, but I have a feeling their arguments will be like all those old cables lying in drawers and boxes in every house and office – tangled up, obsolete, useless and a waste of space.

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