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Fixing the PC power adapter cluster-muck

Kudos to the cell phone industry for coalescing around a standard that will pave the way for universal cell phone chargers. So really, how difficult is it for PC makers to do the same?

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

It's the small things in life.

So it is that when your car battery dies, you can jump-start the engine using generic cables sold by any of the thousands of retail locations that stock the item. And fairly soon, charging up most cell phones will be just as easy: seven wireless operators and handset makers just agreed at the GSMA 2009 conference to standardize chargers.

The Micro-USB connector used on this Motorola cell phone charger will soon be the standard for all chargers. Motorola

Terrific. But when it comes to laptop PC power adapters, you'd be well advised to heed the tag line from a well-known American Express commercial: Don't leave home without it.

Because if you do, you're likely screwed.

The fact is that every PC maker has its own secret sauce to define how its laptop computer charger interacts with the battery. If you're stuck and someone is kind enough to lend you a charger designed for another make and model, the plugs usually won't fit and what's more, sometimes they use different voltage. Even if you manage to locate a substitute charger, where the ratings match and the unit plugs into your notebook, there's always the chance it may void your warranty.

What about keeping a universal power adapter that connects to your car's cigarette lighter? Not really. A lot of us take the subway and besides, that avoids the question still facing the PC industry: why not take the lead from the cell phone companies and coalesce around a single standard? It can't be that hard.

It's also a major convenience. One reason why corporations standardize is to eliminate these kinds of potential headaches. One of the reasons I loved my old IBM ThinkPad is that I could charge up using any of the line's adapters. (Check out this dated but still interesting read by a Lenovo product manager explaining the context for the switchover to a different AC adapter barrel plug. The new power connector no longer physically fits in the power jack on an older generation ThinkPad.)

Before making its announcement in Barcelona earlier this week, the GSM Association likely had to twist a few arms. Group decisions are never easy. But getting the signatories to the declaration to standardize will prove to be a boon for consumers. Seventeen mobile operators along with the big names--LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson--all agreed to use the Micro-USB technology as the common universal charging interface (Apple so far has not signed on).

I'm sure there was money to be made when a customer had to replace the lost accessory, But the trade association was doing its membership a huge favor by convincing the operators and handset makers to do what was in their enlightened self interest all along. (It's a good first step. Now, how about a universal charger for all handheld electronics?)

Unfortunately, there's no real analogue to the GSMA in the PC business. With no candidate likely to fill that void, the absence of a standard suggests that the status quo will continue to be the order of the day. No computer maker has much interest sticking out its neck out. Simply put, nobody wants to take responsibility if a customer needs to use a third-party charger and things go kapooie.

So before heading out on the road with your laptop PC, tie a string around your finger. You're still on your own.