Smith: Keep government out of my charger port

0
585

Andrew Smith

I remember the first cell phones we bought — Nokia flip phones with very strange charger hookups. The phones are long gone, but I discovered the charge cables in a slew of others in a drawer a few days back.

I’ve been a certifiable member of the Cult of Apple for the last several years, whether it be an old iPad or iPhone 4 with the old 30-pin connectors.

Those are all obsolete now, because technology has improved. The Lightning connector Apple has used for the last several phone generations is smaller, faster, better and does more than the old 30-pin ones. Android phones have seen similar evolution, eventually to USB-C. While they have two different connectors and standards, it’s not really bothersome, because consumers know what they’re getting. We adapt and adjust rather quickly, especially once we realize it involves a better experience.

I have quite a few 30-pin to Lightning adapters so they work on my old accessories. It’s fine. It can be a little inconvenient, but it’s an easily-addressable minor annoyance.

Until, of course, government steps in. Apple, which has always had and used proprietary technology, is persona non grata in this new world. In June, the European Union mandated all smartphones, tablets, handheld video games, e-readers and, eventually, laptops, use a USB-C port. This week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed the same.

Well, Warren didn’t propose a bill in the Senate, even though that’s her job, because that might require hearings and be voted down. She instead wrote a letter to the Secretary of Commerce, demanding her department write a rule mandating the USB-C port in all devices. That’s how lawmaking is done in the U.S. these days — legislators just grandstand on social media and in television appearances but demand the messy business of actually legislating be done by unelected bodies like the courts and executive branch agencies, who can work more swiftly and without the cloak of accountability to the voters. Remember Thomas Sowell’s axiom — politicians aren’t interested in solving your problems, they’re interested in solving theirs, of which getting elected and reelected are the top two.

Back to the main point. One would think a uniform, universal charging port would be a great thing. It might be — the market seems to be headed that direction. I’m typing this on a MacBook that has two USB-C ports, for example. But that’s part of the evolution of the market. Consumers make demands of producers, and if those producers don’t provide what consumers want, they’ll vote with their feet. Producers are thus incentivized to innovate and continue to research, develop and produce better products.

The development that yielded the Lightning and USB-C ports are part of that development, which has happened continually over time. Consumers adapt to the new technology and, usually, embrace it very quickly.

So what is the problem with government stepping in and saying “you must have a uniform charger port?”

It immediately stunts innovation, while trying to fix a problem that really isn’t a problem. Only recently have Android devices migrated from mini-USB ports to USB-C. Had this crusade toward universal port by legislative fiat happened two years ago, they’d have mandated mini-USBs on all devices. I’m not a computer geek, but USB-C appears to be superior than mini-USB in terms of speed, connectivity and what it can do. It’s an answer to the do-everything Lightning port that’s been standard on Apple devices for a decade. Had this crusade happened 20 years ago, we’d all still be using those funky Nokia connectors.

Why? Because once something is made law, the incentive for firms shifts from innovation to compliance.

Under the former, firms — in this case, phone manufacturers — are seeking to produce the best possible product to pull market share from their competitors and attract new customers. Apple developed the Lightning connector in 2012. Anyone who has owned an Apple product in the last decade has tons of cables. The market adjusted quickly. Several firms manufacture Android-compatible devices. They’ve largely coalesced around USB-C on their own without any push from above (and even Apple is moving that direction with its MacBooks, even if it’s sticking with Lightning — which its products are designed to interface with — on its iToys).

But once it gets legislated, innovation stops. There could be a USB-D or Lightning II that is even better than what’s currently out there, but any need to research and develop that standard has been stifled by the EU (and, possibly, by the Commerce Department in the U.S.). Now, the incentive is to comply and work around — and with — any limitations that still exist with the current connectors. There can be no change without legislation or new rules, thus firms switch attention to complying with the rules rather than improving and innovating the product (which, in this case, is the connector).

I’m a music aficionado with a large record collection. As technology improved to move past the old 78 rpm records, two standards emerged — the 33 1/3 rpm standard for long-play albums that could contain 20+ minutes of music on a side, or the 45 rpm standard that could play one song at a time on a smaller disc. The two had different-sized holes to connect it to the spindle — the long-play albums with a small hole, the 45s with a large one. The market never “solved” the format war. Manufacturers developed two-speed turntables and built adapters so the large-hole 45s could fit on the smaller-spindled turntables designed for LPs (and the old 78s). I own several of those adapters. It was fine and wasn’t even a minor inconvenience. It sorted itself out.

There have been times when two competing standards coexisted and the market settled on one — the VHS/Betamax competition (and later, the Blu Ray/HD DVD competition) where both coexisted for a while, and consumers clearly preferred one format over another and producers followed. There are times when innovation makes old formats obsolete — like streaming replacing Blu Rays, which replaced DVDs, which replaced VHS tapes (and a few other obsolete technologies, like Video Discs), or audio streaming and MP3s replacing compact discs, which replaced cassettes and LPs, before vinyl made a comeback in the last decade. That all happened without government interference or mandating a “uniform standard.”

The desire to mandate a universal charging port is a solution to a problem that really doesn’t exist beyond being a minor annoyance for some consumers. And if consumers are annoyed by it, they’ll gravitate toward solutions that don’t annoy them. They’ll tell the producers what to produce (and conversely, what not to produce), while those producers will continue to try to improve their products to gain more consumers.

Contrary to what busybodies-turned-busybullies (hat tip to James Harrigan & Antony Davies for that line) like Sen. Warren and the EU parliament believe, the government doesn’t have to be the command-and-control of everything (or, for that matter, anything). The market, through the forces of entrepreneurship, comes up with its own solution, one that conveys the greatest good to the greatest number of people. If the government stays out of the way, the market will continue to serve us, the consumers, with the best possible products.

Andrew Smith is an economics instructor at New Palestine (IN) High School and an adjunct instructor for Vincennes University.