Skip navigation

Time to Get Green with "Bluejuice"

I just walked out of a tech-oriented store at JFK airport (en route to Berlin) that devoted at least 60 percent of its precious shelf space not to new MP3 players, digital cameras, micro-sized voice recorders, GPS devices or the like, but instead to a seemingly endless landscape of—are you ready?—power connector tips. The idea is that if you need an extra charger for some electronic doodad, then you just buy a single does-it-all transformer from a vendor, plug one end of it into a wall socket, procure the one special power tip (which that vendor also sells—that wall of tips I just mentioned) for your PDA, cell phone or whatever, and presto, you've got a charger that offers the right voltage, amperes, and tip type for your electronic doodad. Better yet, if you happen to own another electronic doodad or (if you're like me, ahem) a dozen more electronic doodads, then you need only acquire a few more tips, and you've reduced the volume of power adapters that you've got to lug around to just one. Neat, eh?

No. Definitely, absolutely, unquestionably no. There's something just a little crazy here. In a world where "carbon footprint" is a phrase that everyone understands, it's time to nail a few theses to the door of the church of technology and consumerism. For heaven's sake, one protocol—Bluetooth—lets vastly dissimilar sorts of devices, applications and operating systems communicate. Is it so much to ask that every small gadget accept the same kind of power adapter? (Heck, call the idea "bluejuice.")

I'll bet that everyone reading this knows exactly what I'm talking about. Bought a new PDA, hand-held GPS, or cell phone? Got a good deal on it? Good for you—what's more fun than a new, um, productivity tool? But now get ready for the real price: insanely overpriced proprietary batteries, extra power adapters, and computer-to-gadget USB data cables. Is there a good reason why makers of hand-held devices can't standardize on these things or at least on the power-related parts?

A Modest Proposal
Well, from an electrical engineering and physics standpoint, the answer is "no, there's no reason why we can't standardize." Home appliances, tools, and zillions of other things are perfectly happy accepting the boring old 115 volts and 60 Hz power that North American wall outlets provide. Hundreds of thousands of small mobile electronic devices work fine despite the fact that they've all been designed with the same millstone around their necks—namely, the need to run off AAA, AA, C, D, or nine-volt batteries. Clearly the realities of improved power density in batteries means that we could benefit from a few new standard sizes, but why not build that reality into the battery market? Why not just plan to design a small number of battery sizes that would do the job for 90 percent of the devices on the market at any point? Yes, energy density will probably continue to increase, but that's not a killer to the idea: just plan to revisit those battery sizes every five to ten years. Every few years, manufacturers could agree on, for example, four battery sizes: a minimum-power laptop battery, a maximum-power laptop battery, a minimum-power cell phone battery and an maximum-power cell phone battery—call them the "SL," "BL," "SC" and "BC" sized batteries, and perhaps tack on a year-specific suffix to distinguish the SL10 battery (the small laptop battery standard of 2010) from the SL17 (the small laptop battery standard of 2017) model.

This would not, of course, restrict any vendor's freedom, as cell phone and laptop vendors would have a choice: offer their new wares to employ an SL, BL, SC or BC battery, or just choose to require a proprietary battery, a battery that forces zillions of people to use that battery for, oh, perhaps a year, and then toss it into the trash, leaching arsenic and other things into the water table, things that might easily find their ways into arable land, leading to invisible poisons in the foods we eat. Ugh.

Many small-doodad vendors have taken a big step in this direction by forgoing proprietary power adapters and instead using USB connections to power (and charge) their small devices, and I applaud them for that: it's a good start. But unfortunately, they offset that positive contribution by designing devices with built-in, non-removable proprietary batteries, as in the case of my iPhone. I love my iPhone, but I hate the notion that if my battery loses its "rechargeability" then I'm dumping some lithium, nickel, or cadmium into the ecosystem.

But hey, what do I know—I'm just a journalist. I'd love to hear from hardware vendors about why standardization—which would make life easier for consumers and reduce the flow of poison into the food chain—is a bad idea. Whaddya say, guys? Drop me a line.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.