Saturday, October 17, 2009

Return of the war on dongles

'Time', as Douglas Adams once wrote, 'to declare war, I think, on little dongly things.'

Back in 1998 (or thereabouts) Douglas wrote an article for MacWorld magazine about his frustration with power supply leads and 'dongles' - plug and play computer peripherals - that varied from country to country. Why, he asked, couldn't there be a common standard? As he pointed out:

'In fact there already is a kind of rough standard, but it's rather an odd one. Not many people actually smoke in their cars these days, and the aperture in the dashboard which used to hold the cigar lighter is now more likely to be powering a mobile phone, CD player, fax machine or, according to a recent and highly improbable TV commercial, an instant coffee making gizmo. Because the socket originally had a different purpose it's the wrong size and in the wrong place for what we now want to do with it, so perhaps it's time to start adapting it for its new job. The important thing this piece of serendipitous pre-adaptation has given us is a possible DC power standard. An arbitrary one, to be sure, but perhaps we should probably just be grateful that it was designed by a car mechanic in an afternoon and not a computer industry standards committee in a lifetime. Keep the voltage level, design a new, small, plug and you have a new standard.'

Ah Mr Adams, the voice of commonsense in technology. Wouldn't he have loved the brilliantly cool stuff we have now? The i-pods, graphics tablets, flashdrives and digital cameras ... he'd have worshipped at their gadgety altars. But, I suspect, he'd still be raging about the dongles.

A decade on and there's still no 'one-size-fits-all' power connector is there? Consequently, if you're a regular international traveller, you'll need to take all manner of adapters with you. And, of course, every power lead has a different connector too so I can't just power up my phone or laptop using someone else's lead either.

And then there are USB leads. Lots of bloody USB leads. When the 'universal serial bus' arrived, I cheered. No more 5, 7, 9 and 10 din plugs, no more firewires, SCARTs, male or female serial cables or even, maybe, power cables.

USB = Universal = One-size-fits-all. Joy!

But no. Oh no no no. Rather than being universal, the USB lead is merely versal. One end may be a common size but the other end is different for almost any peripheral you want to plug it into. The USB lead for my i-pod is different from the ones for my camera, my webcam, my satnav, my printer, my videocam and my phone. That's seven USB leads just for the gizmos I can think of off the top of my head. Which means that whenever I travel, I need to fill one corner of my suitcase with a small plastic-coated nest of power adapters and USB leads, all unique and un-universal. And if I lose a lead, I have to endure the trauma of trying to find a new one that fits. I had to buy a new USB lead for my camera the other day (which prompted this post) and was so bewildered by the choice that I had to take an impression of the camera socket, imprinted in Blu-Tack, with me to ensure I got the right size.

This is all a plot, right? This is a coordinated and orchestrated move by the tech companies to make us buy lots of leads. Just as printer and photocopier companies make their money from toner and ink, I reckon Gates and Jobs and the IT Crowd make their money from cables. I'm sure of it.

The world of technology may have made some wonderfully powerful leaps since Douglas Adams died, but the war against dongles goes on. Douglas called non-standardisation 'sheer blinding idiocy'. But if I were a cable manufacturer I'd be laughing all the way to my yacht.

We're the idiots for putting up with it.

1 comment:

Andrew Horne said...

Reminded of the old line 'The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.'