Thursday, 10 February 2011

Is the EU getting too excited over the common phone charger?

Within a year almost any type of data-enabled mobile phone you buy, anywhere in the world, is going to come with one common mobile phone charger – thanks to the EU. This week the 14 main mobile phone companies signed a binding agreement to all use a common Micro-USB charger port standardised by Brussels. And because the EU is the Western world's largest common market, this will mean all data phones worldwide will likely have this standard. Who says the EU doesn't have global influence?

The companies - which include Apple, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Motorola and Qualcomm – were issued an ultimatum by the EU in 2009: voluntarily adopt a common charging system or be forced to do so by EU legislation. The companies agreed to go with the voluntary root. The common Micro-USB port standards were finalised in December, and the first phones with this port are expected to hit the market within months. According to the agreement, none of these manufacturers can market a new phone in the EU that does not have this common charging port.

I have to admit I've been a bit confused by this policy, and the unrestrained exuberance with which the European Commission has been celebrating it, since it started. After all, isn't Micro-USB the syncing/charging format most smartphones were moving to anyway? Is this just a case of the EU mandating something that was going to happen on its own?

The answer is yes and no. While most phone-makers were moving to the Micro-USB format, they were each making their own unique chargers produced for specific mobile phones. So even though two phones might both have a Micro-USB port, the charger for one may not have worked with the other. And if the market had been left to its own devices, it really wasn't in the economic interest of the companies to get together and all use a common charger. After all if you make your own proprietary charger, your customers have to come to you when they need to buy a new one.

So, this is probably a good thing for consumers. We can all think of a time when we forgot our phone charger and were frustrated by the fact that we couldn't use our friends' charger. But the way in which the commission has been trumpeting this news from the rooftops has been, well, a bit over-the-top. The press conference to announce this on Tuesday was a big production, and was only the latest in a series of press conferences over the past months updating us on every last little development in the issue. Each of these seemed to be accompanied by a commissioner tying himself up in knots of phone charger chords like he was demonstrating the 'old way of doing things' in an infomercial.

The EU executive even put out this exceedingly bizarre commercial to inform consumers about this new era of phone charging we've entered. The whole thing is just surreal, it actually looks like an ad against the common phone charger. What is this dystopian nightmare in which we all have to take our meals out of a common ladle?

I suspect that the impetus behind the push to publicize this development is the fact that the commission was criticised in the past for failing to effectively communicate their last consumer-friendly mobile phone legislation, the EU cap on mobile roaming charges, to the European public. As I've written about before, most Europeans I know still aren't aware of the fact that their roaming rates within the EU decreased by 75% two years ago. And if they are aware, they think it was the benevolent decision of their phone company. The fact is the national press, particularly in Eurosceptic countries like the UK, very rarely reports on anything positive the EU is doing for European citizens because it doesn't fit the pre-defined EU narrative.

So they've clearly learned their lesson. But is this the right issue to be going all-out on like this? I mean sure, it's annoying that phone chargers don't work on other phones – but I've never thought that it should be illegal! The exorbitant out-of-proportion roaming rates were a major problem for a common market and were unethical considering there was clearly collusion going on between the companies. But phone chargers? I mean, electronics come with their own specific chargers. That's just how it is.

The commission says beyond being an issue of inconvenience, this is also an environmental issue. As we all know, people go through mobile phones frequently. All of those old chargers start to pile up after awhile, and if they end up in landfills it can be toxic to the environment. If people were able to keep just one phone charger and use it with every new phone they buy, it would save not only the environment but could also save them money - if the prices for the phones were lowered because they don't include a charger. Of course, this would depend on the phone companies selling their phones without chargers, which the agreement doesn't oblige them to do. It will be interesting to see over the coming years whether mobile phones start to come with chargers sold separately.

In the end this is exactly the type of consumer-friendly action the EU needs be involved in if it is to win back the affections of the European public. And a big part of that is the need to effectively communicate that to the public. But there is a risk that with things like the common charger, the EU might look silly promoting it as if it’s the cure for cancer. It's a delicate line to walk.


Anonymous said...

that commercial is dreadful!! What were they thinking? Your tax money at work.

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