Micro-USB: One Thing the EU's Got Right

By Chris Mills on at

It seems pretty fashionable to whine about the EU nowadays, but while it agricultural subsidies might need a little re-thinking, there's one thing it's done right for humanity: the forced adoption of micro-USB, the best thing to happen to smartphones in the last five years.

I'd like to take you back in time, to 2008. The world's banks were falling apart; Heathrow Terminal 5 had that hilarious few months where no-one ever got their bags; and the top smartphones were the iPhone 3G, Samsung Instinct, Sony Xperia X1, T-Mobile G1, BlackBerry Bold, and probably some forgettable Nokia.

Now, apart from the shockingly low-res screens, tiny size of the things (something I miss), one other element stands out: none of them used the same charger. Nope, we were all stuck with different, proprietary, and totally terrible chargers for each and every device. There was no micro-USB. There was only the hell of the 20-pin connector, the always-broken retaining pins and the what-the-hell-tiny Nokia charger.

Just take a moment to remember how bad that sucked.

Every time you got a new phone: sorry bud, go buy a new load of accessories. Want to listen to headphones? Well, you'll probably have to use the crappy pieces of plastic that came with your handset, since a fair few phones back then didn't have a 3.5mm jack port. And charging off your computer? Forget it, dude.

Thing is, no-one really complained about it. Even when the same manufacturers changed 'standard' from generation to generation, everyone went along with it, since it was the status quo -- get a new phone, and buy £50's worth of charger to go with it.

Mercifully, someone took note. The EU, doing its standard thing of finding problems to fix, decided that the waste endemic in the system (due to all those discarded chargers) was environmentally bad, and well, you can't really argue with the environment.

So. In 2009, the European Commission (and I quote) "gave the mobile phone industry an ultimatum to voluntarily adopt common standards" for phone chargers. [Emphasis added]. Laughter at the EU aside, it actually worked. Every big name -- Samsung, Apple, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Nokia, and even RIM (rest its soul) signed up to the agreement on the 5th June 2009, with a couple of others like Huawei jumping on the bandwagon a bit later.

And a few years down the line: it's worked. Every single smartphone and tablet I can think of (bar the fruits of Apple's loins) has a micro-USB connector. It's wonderful. Although you probably shouldn't mix and match phone chargers too much, it's handy as hell to be able to do so. When I forget my wall-wart, I nick my mate's because it's exactly the same as mine. Life is as it should be.

Of course, there's the one cool kid who's only bothered to give the EU's ultimatum lip service. Apple 'complied' with the agreement it signed by selling a ridiculously overpriced Lightning-to-micro-USB connector separately, but have otherwise totally ignored the EU, in trademark (and no doubt patented) Cupertino style.

More than an ode to micro-USB, though, this should be a posterchild for how government and industry can work together to deliver standards. Believe me, I'm all for competition; but if we can make that competition work within a standardised framework that makes switching between different companies easy, then all the better.

Government intervention always has its risks. Indeed, back in 2009, scary articles were written, and experts wheeled out, predicting that enforced micro-USB compatability would be costly for the manufacturers, who would pass the costs onto consumers. Guess what? That hasn't happened -- the most expensive cables, surprise surprise, are still sold by blue-shirted "Geniuses" (Genii?).

Most importantly, now's the right time to be making standards. Technology is advancing at a scary-fast rate (as I realised, looking at those less-than-5-year-old smartphones); there's a whole host of new technologies, like wearable computers and self-driving cars, that are just begging for a common standard to talk to each other. The so-called 'Internet of Things' is constantly hamstrung by devices that won't talk to each other -- and don't even get me started on wireless charging, which is now stuck in a ridiculous two-horse race to be the 'industry standard'.

That's leaving aside all the other things which still don't have standards. For starters, can someone explain why USB B exists, seemingly only for printers? Laptop power inputs are still mired in the age of 2003 smartphones; and no one in the world can agree what the one form of power socket should be (I mean, British 3-pin, obviously, but we have to tell the rest of the world that).

Get standards sorted, and the rest is easy. Imagine a country where every county had different train track widths, different road signage, and tea and coffee had to go in separate mugs. It'd be chaos. Smartphones have escaped that hell-hole (with a little help from the EU); now it's time for the rest of tech to follow suit.