Technology

One Cable to Rule Them All: Group Seeks to Standardize Laptop Plugs

By / Dec 19, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Riding high on the success of its USB-based mobile standard, the International Electrotechnical Commission hopes to bring that mindset to the world of laptop plugs. But the standards group might face an uphill battle.

One of the tech industry’s smallest big success stories could lead to another.

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), a nongovernmental standards body that has existed for more than a century, hopes to follow up on its recent success, the launch of a standard micro-USB port that comes on most cellphones, with a new type of plug for laptops—one that could help reduce electronic waste worldwide.

Here’s what you need to know:

Success on mobile: In 2011, the IEC joined forces with several large manufacturers (Nokia, Apple, Motorola, and Samsung, among others) to launch a new type of standard connection for phones. The goal of standardization? Reducing the 51,000 tons of redundant chargers produced yearly. With a one-size-fits-all adapter, IEC wrote at the time, “manufacturers will be able to achieve cost-savings in production, packaging, and shipping, since they will no longer need to provide a charger with each phone.” The cable style, which relies on the widely used USB standard, is projected to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 13.6 million tons yearly. Other groups, including the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union and CTIA: The Wireless Association, backed the move.

From phones to laptops: The IEC announced this week that it would begin building out a similar standard for laptop power adapters. These have more pronounced differences than did chargers for mobile devices, leading users to throw away perfectly usable computers simply because of broken cables. “The IEC International Standards for the universal charger for mobile phones has been widely adopted by the mobile phone industry and is already starting to help reduce e-waste,” IEC General Secretary and CEO Frans Vreeswijk said in a statement. “A single power supply covering a wide range of notebook computers is the next step in lowering e-waste and its impact on our planet.” The group says that the standardization of new laptop charger specs, expected to be available in early 2014, could help cut back on the 500,000 tons of electronic waste that such cables create each year.

Will it take off? It’s hard to say. It’s unclear who exactly is on board with these standards as of yet, but as the mobile standard drew the attention of the European Union, the IEC’s work could go a long way toward encouraging standardization. But as VentureBeat reporter Eric Blattberg notes, it won’t be as simple to do for larger devices. Beyond the technical issues due to varying power requirements, he notes, “some companies view their chargers as a defining part of their brand; they’re unlikely to modify those proprietary designs—and the dollars that they bring in—to comply with the IEC’s standard.” That resistance could pose a problem, he says, even though the “clear advantages” to universal chargers could help both consumers and the environment.

How many old cables do you have lying around? Give us a count in the comments below.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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