Chargers and AC Adapters are Evil

OK, time for a twenty-first century rant:

One of the unfortunate side-effects of being a gadget freak is that I have a tangled and cumbersome collection of AC adapters, battery charges and automotive adapters, and Murphy’s law often dictates that I am missing the one I need at a crucial moment. This is also one of the more user-hostile aspects of living with electronic devices. The fact there exists no standard form factor, no standard connector and no intelligence in the AC/DC converter itself (most of them draw current whether or not they are plugged into the device they are meant to power or charge) means owners of these devices are stuck managing (and lugging around) a bunch of extra crap to support their coterie of gadgets, while these power adapters we all leave plugged into the wall waste epic amounts of energy, burning power 24×7, regardless of whether or not they are plugged in to a device.

This is clearly something that is broken and needs fixing, at least from the end-user’s perspective. I’d love it if, for example, all devices adopted a mini-USB plug and could easily charge off a laptop or a simple wall adapter with a hub to charge multiple USB ports. Or if all devices could charge via contact-less magnetic induction and could share a single charging station simply by being placed within a few inches of the charge-hub. Imagine if every desk, hotel and automobile came standard with a charging solution that was guaranteed to work with all your devices. Sure would be nice to only have to carry one charger around, or to carry none at all since you could be sure anywhere you went, you’d be able to find power for your devices.

I recall several years ago when a couple startups were pitching a technology for a standardized “charge-pad,” which was basically a powered place-mat with a mesh of wires on it that would charge any devices that were placed upon the pad, assuming the device had embedded this technology into it and had the special exposed contacts necessary to make contact with the pad and negotiate for its specific power requirements. Since I haven’t seen any such devices come to the market, I can only assume these companies failed to get funded or that they failed to drive adoption of their technology, which is not surprising given the dynamics I will describe below.

A market-driven solution to this is probably just a big pipe dream, and one that is not likely to be driven by any of the existing players in the industry. It is a boil-the-ocean, chicken-and-egg type problem. Until 90%+ of all devices out there adopt a standard, the benefits won’t be seen by most users, and it would take years for the existing install base to turn over. At least one company has a product that capitalizes on the inefficiency and stupidity of the status quo, and this is iGo, which manufactures the iGo everywhere power adapter that allows a user to power and/or charge two devices at a time using AC outlets, car power and airplane power. One can choose among a bewildering array of adapter tips to fit most popular devices. I get the impression that this has been a successful product for iGo.

I bought one myself and sometimes use it while traveling, but even the iGo falls short since it does not offer an adapter tip for the Sidekick II. And they’ll always always be one step behind the state-of-the-art. iGo can’t possibly provide tips for every device out there and won’t offer a new adapter until there is enough of an install base to warrant adding a new tip to their product line. So my hopes that iGo would solve my problems were dashed when I realized I still needed to travel with my charger for my Sidekick. And the charger only charges two devices at a time. I carry around a laptop, a cell phone, a couple iPods, a bluetooth headset and a Sidekick. Charging just two devices at a time doesn’t cut it. Plus, by the time you have an iGo and all the tips to go along with it, it pretty much occupies the same amount of space that all the other charges and power supplies did.

But the real reason reason why a standardized solution is unlikely to be adopted: retailers and the device manufacturers themselves enjoy the fat margins they reap from selling these over-priced accessories, so they’ve got no incentive to standardize. I’ve lost many chargers and automotive adapters (or left them behind on a trip and been forced to buy another lest my phone’s battery runs dry). Once, I even had to pay Sony $90 for a new battery charger for my DV cam. No way that thing cost them more than $5 to produce, but they know I can’t get the charger anywhere else and that if I want to use my $1000 video camera, I’ll have to pay their ransom. The waste and inefficiency of this is only felt by the user, not by any of the other players in the value chain.

Maybe the only way this could ever be solved is via some regulatory mandate. But AC adapters aren’t exactly a sexy issue for an enterprising politician to get behind, though the energy efficiency angle might be a viable way to drive change here. Maybe I’m just not thinking creatively enough about how to fix this…

If anyone has any bright ideas, I’d love to hear them. If someone could convince me there is a viable business model and/or sufficiently disruptive technological approach to attack this problem, I’d love to hear about it. Or if there is any political or regulatory movement with a sensible approach, I’d love to hear about that too.

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