Non-standard chargers turn market forces upside down [Commentary]

There's a drawer in my house that's full of things my wife and I just can't bring ourselves to part with. It's not so much that they're valuable or useful. They're actually neither.

And it's not like they're suddenly going to be in demand in the future – though you never know.


The tangled mess taking up space in an otherwise useful drawer consists of several half cord, half transformer devices used to charge a succession of cellular telephones. No doubt anyone old enough to read this can remember those dark days shortly after cell phones made the transition from being expensive curiosities to the standard mode of communication in modern society when every phone had a charger that was nearly as unique as a snowflake or fingerprint.

On top of that, you'll no doubt remember, they were fairly expensive to replace, almost to the point that losing a charger could have been cause for replacing a perfectly functional, but increasingly outdated phone. It's probably the reality that one or two of the worthless chargers in that drawer were purchased at a cost of $25 or more to replace others that were lost. The long and short of it is phone chargers during those several years were precious commodities to be kept in secure places, like special drawers.


Then it came to pass that the problem went away. The past several cell phones to come into my family's possession all can be charged using any of the chargers on active duty in our house.

The reason for the convenient change came about from as unlikely a source as I would have expected. Back in 2009, CNN posted a short story saying the United Nations, that much criticized, often ineffectual group of diplomats who roost on the shore of the East River on Manhattan, had set some sort of standard for cell phone chargers.

As world problems go, non-standard cell phone chargers isn't a huge one, but it is irritating and, apparently, resulted in the creation of a lot of unnecessary garbage. As it turns out, most people on earth don't save their worthless old chargers hoping they'll come back into style like leisure suits and knee-high tube socks; they toss them in the trash or worse.

After the UN action, according to a Wall Street Journal tech blogger, the European Union took action to standardize cell phone chargers in 2010. In the U.S., the standardization came about after the changes took hold in Europe and as a result of an agreement reached by an industry trade group.

Which brings me to a question that really bothers me: Why wasn't this standardized a lot earlier in the process?

Of course, in this country, there's been a real penchant for allowing so-called "market forces" to decide such things. The classic example is videotape, which has gone the way of Instamatic camera film and carburetors. Two cassette sizes rose to the top and fought it out: VHS and Beta. Eventually VHS became the industry standard, though the victory was short-lived as it was replaced rather quickly by disc.

Now as it happens, the federal government has an office that's perfectly suited to sorting this kind of thing out, if it were only encouraged to do so: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the operation sometimes referred to as "Weights and Measures."

As it stands, market forces have their value, but someone needs to set standards for things like the width between rails for railroads and whose foot determines exactly what is a foot long. My foot, incidentally, is just about 11 inches from heel to big toe, so if I was trying to have my foot take over as the market driven standard, either my inches would have to be shorter or a foot would have to be redefined as being 11 standard inches long. But then who would decide how long an inch is?


So I'm well aware it isn't necessarily a good thing to have the government setting standards willy-nilly, but a standard phone charger would have been just as nice in 2005 as it has proven to be in recent years.

Beyond that, there's the whole issue of printer cartridges. I mean, if hunters and target shooters can agree on five standard sizes for shotgun cartridges, how hard could it be to come up with a few standard ink cartridge sizes. Heck, at this point, most printer companies operate on the one-size-can-never-fit-all theory when it comes to ink cartridges.

Same goes for batteries. Sure, we have AA, AAA, B, C, D and so on, but then there are (this won't be much of a surprise) cell phone batteries, which seem to be custom made for each phone. And they're every bit as expensive to replace as the chargers of old or the phones themselves.

Which probably brings us to the reason for lack of standards on these things: if the varieties are so vast, each thing, be it a battery, ink cartridge or phone charger, is in relatively short supply. The market forces on this are clear and well established: small supply and substantial demand translates into increased prices. For market forces to work in favor of the buyers, a standard would need to be set, then all the products that do the same thing would be judged on price and quality, not whether they fit a particular device.