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Charged Up & Free

tech-reviews Updated: Feb 28, 2009 18:56 IST
Prasanto K Roy
Prasanto K Roy
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

It’s still chilly here in Kathmandu. But Delhi has warmed up, Kolkata is hot, and Mumbai’s slums are sizzling, watching the Academy Awards ceremony live from the other side of the planet. While Slumdog Millionaire, that “pumped-up, hyperactive, hyperreal melodrama,” as a British critic put it, wins its Academy landslide, and two Indians pick up individual Oscars for music and sound, the month is already packed with shows and events, in India and abroad. Slowdown, what slowdown?

In this month was the annual Nasscom forum in Mumbai, and a zillion other smaller tech shows in India and the world. The biggest of them was Barcelona’s annual Mobile World Congress, which I gave up visiting this year to speak at C-Change, an Indian CIO meet held this year in this valley amidst the Himalayas.

The Barcelona show, also called 3GSM, is the world’s largest exhibition for the mobile industry.

Among other announcements and launches was this: 17 handset makers and mobile networks have agreed to supply a universal micro-USB charger with new phones from January 1, 2012. Wow.

But wait. First, here’s the situation today. No two phone makers use the same charger. The most common office refrain: Help, my battery’s gone, anyone carrying the thin Nokia charger? Or Samsung? Or Sony Ericsson? Vendors don’t even retain the same charger for their own phones, as they bring out newer models.

United we charge
Circa 2012. A single charger will work with most phones. Whether you have a Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG or Sony Ericsson handset, it will have a microUSB connector, and will connect to a universal charger with a similar connector.
Imagine the freedom!

You can choose to buy a mobile phone without a charger, because your existing charger, or any third party charger, will work. The phone you buy will be cheaper, and you won’t have to junk your charger when you discard your old phone.

What’s more, if you do accumulate multiple chargers, you can keep one in the office, and even one in each room at home – and simply stop having to carry a charger for your phone.

Go to a friend’s place or any other office, and you know you can always plug in your phone to charge.

By then, there will be a half billion mobile users in India, which means roughly 100 million chargers being junked each year, taking up landfill space; a universal charger will let most of that number be re-used.

Now, I’m quite surprised the vendors agreed to this. Yes, it will help save the planet, but that is hardly exciting for them. On the other hand, they will lose the stiff margins they keep on replacement chargers and accessories (a Nokia charger costs you five times what you’d pay for a equivalent, generic charger).

However, in the long run, it does simplify things for vendors, letting them focus more on refining their basic product, the smartphone.

This isn’t a perfect solution. Some vendors have already opted out, notably Apple, which says that its iPhone is too sophisticated to rely on a generic connector standard. (Keep in mind that iPods and iPhones don’t even let you change the battery if it dies, and their cables and connectors are all proprietary, so that you can happily contribute toward Steve Job’s bonuses each time you need a cable or battery change.)

Also, the microUSB isn’t the most robust of connectors, especially if you try to force it the wrong way. (Having said that, when used correctly, it can last for years.)

And I don’t expect this standard itself to survive beyond three years. The rapidly evolving needs of smartphones, including high speed video and multimedia, 4G, and newer features will overtake microUSB.

But even so, three years of a standard connector and charger across the world’s phones will do a lot to make life easier, and cheaper, for the world’s billions of phone users. Apart from helping green the planet a fair bit.

Prasanto K Roy ( pkr@cybermedia.co.in ) is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Voice&Data and Living Digital