Forgetting my cell phone charger in Toronto has already resulted in a week of weak connectivity. It need not be so. While it must be a gold mine for cell phone shops and manufacturers, the absurd proliferation of charger types is clearly an anti-competitive practice.
A government keen to protect consumers and boost overall economic efficiency would do the following:
- Require that all cellular phones be rechargeable using a standard connector.
- Ideally, that connector should be mini-USB (second from the left), capable of transferring both power and data.
- Require that adapters be sold for all phones made in the past five years, and that the cost of the adapters equal just the cost of shipping and manufacture.
As long as any charger could be plugged into any phone and provide power, firms would be free to compete in designing and building chargers that connect to electrical outlets, car cigarette lighters, or whatever other source of power seems fitting.
The intervention in the market is justified for the same reason as with all standards: it produces societal welfare without adverse effects. It replaces self-serving confusion generated by private firms with an ordered approach that makes sense for everyone. It is not as though there is any major innovation which can occur with cell phone chargers. At root, they are just plastic-wrapped wires that run from a socket to a circuit board. Having fewer types – and making them go obsolete less frequently – would also reduce the usage of energy and materials in manufacturing, as well as the number of (potentially toxic) plastic trinkets populating landfills worldwide. A standard would allow people to share chargers, as well as permit buses and trains to have universal charging stations available.
Something similar could be done for laptop computers. Cell phones and laptops are both ubiquitous elements of modern life and commerce. Just think how many productive hours are needlessly lost because each manufacturer wants to ensure that last year’s charger cannot be sold to someone buying this year’s phone.