Illustration by Timothy R. Butler/Stable Diffusion

We're Regulating the Wrong Thing

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 8:48 PM

Standardization is a good thing. Forced standarization can appear beneficial, too. But the two are not the equivalent. Consider the increasingly ubiquitous USB Type-C cable.

The journey to USB started in the early 1990’s when the computing industry began the quest to replace the mishmash of different, aging connectors — both proprietary and standard — with a single one usable for all peripherals.

My first computer with a USB port was built in 1998, though the PC world didn’t finish the transition for many years thereafter. Things moved faster on the Mac side given that 1998 was also the year Apple made a big splash with a nearly all-USB computer, the iMac.

(Say what you will about Apple, it has repeatedly played an outsized role in trailblazing open standards through gutsy yet accurate moves like that.)

USB was not the fastest common connection port of the time, and it would be several decades of iterations before it would be. Still, it was simple and worked for many tasks.

Iterations brought a host of major and minor revisions marketed with befuddling names. Beyond the marketing, the connector supported faster and faster speeds and, as devices like MP3 players, e-book readers and cell phones became relevant, we witnessed the release of smaller Mini and Micro-USB variants sized to the ever shrinking things they plugged into.

The main connector that plugs into the “host” stayed the same all that time. The host itself did change as it came to not only include computers, but AC charging adapter, cars and a whole host of other things. Even my razor (for the face, not a brand of keyboard or phone) uses USB now.

With as flexible as it has been, and as nice as it has been on a variety of counts to reduce the number of adapters floating in my drawer, it’d make sense to have the government declare it a standard and be done with it, right? The European Union all but did that over a decade ago, mandating various devices support USB charging through Micro-USB.

(I am not about to praise that decision.)

Though I’ve now used USB for more than half of my life, I still always end up with the cable upside down the first time I try to plug it in. We all know well this design flaw of a perfectly rectangular connector well: unless you compare the end of the connector carefully with the receptacle, it’s easy to turn it the wrong way.

Call it the jelly-on-toast rule: one will attempt to plug a classic USB cable in upside down on the first try as surely as one’s dropped toast will land jelly side down.

Ostensibly, Micro-USB should be a slight bit easier given its trapezoidal shape, but comparing a tiny, slightly non-parallel, but nearly rectangular hole to the equally tiny plug leaves plenty of room for mistakes.

USB up to and beyond the point where the EU weighed in did nothing to solve this. Nor was the “Universal Serial Bus” truly universal yet, given that it couldn’t cover most video needs or high speed data transfers other options like Thunderbolt could.

The bureaucrats were satisfied, but non-bureaucrats otherwise known as “sane people” were not.

The first issue — the jelly-on-toast, always-insert-it-wrong one got a solution in Apple’s proprietary Lightning port. Rather than adopt the even more unwieldy miniature versions of USB connectors the EU thought best, Lightning did, and does, what the original form of USB couldn’t do: provide a connector that hooks up either right side up or upside down. (More to the point, there is no “right side up.”)

The EU mandate barely — and likely inadvertently — avoided squashing that significant improvement by allowing companies to include a Micro-USB to proprietary alternative (in this case Lightning) adapter.

While a rejection of “standards,” Lightning opened the door to reversible ports. The consortium behind USB, which includes Intel and Apple, would unleash the first radical change to USB with the Type-C connector three years later. USB-C is essentially the best of Lightning made into USB proper. Gradually replacing the familiar rectangular Type-A port, the boxy “printer” Type-B port as well as Mini/Micro-USB connectors with a single, small and (like Lightning) reversible port is fantastic for everyone.

Because it is USB, it was unable to escape an impenetrable set of variations and options its creators hoisted upon it, but the basic connector is now simpler than ever. USB-C can do “everything” — charge, transfer data, display video and more — and do it without that inevitable frustration when plugging things in.

The fine regulators at the European Union are now nearing enforcement of a new regulation that requires USB Type-C as the standard for devices such as phones and tossing out the previous exception for including an adapter.

(R.I.P. Lightning.)

Given the story thus far, this sounds like a good thing. Not so fast. Regulators, after all, previously knighted a standard that worked (Micro-USB), but neither covered all the needed uses that ports like Lightning could handle, nor solved basic frustrations. But for that adapter exception, the older EU law would have left no room for the vastly superior USB Type-C to ever even emerge.

When a series of regulations — if passed a few years sooner — would have prevented the standard they wish to promulgate from ever being birthed, that should trouble us.

Yes, it took years for Lightning and then USB-C to emerge, but standard, flexible, reversible connectors did emerge and they did in spite of, not because of, efforts to force standardization. Bureaucratic efforts were happy to settle for “annoying but mostly works;” today we have something that is “largely pleasant and does a lot more.”

I hope that USB Type-C serves us for many years more than older variants, but being locked in is no better now than it was then. Annoyances will still wear on us and beg to be fixed. New ideas and needs will emerge. Innovation and time always surprise us.

By virtue of its size, Europe’s parliamentary government will force any solutions to those things to wade through legislative quicksand rather than just being solved. That’s bad for all the world, since so many products are marketed globally.

This isn’t a one time issue, either. A similar pattern is emerging with car charging as Tesla’s now-open port has won by its merits in North America, but cannot in Europe, since the same legislature has already decreed an inferior port as the port.

Our zealous love of the government “solving” problems creates new ones. This is not really a story about charging small things (like phones) or big things (like cars); it is the story of every time we let bureaucracy do what market demand would solve on its own.

USB-C has not needed any help to come to dominate how we connect things, after all. Its convenience and functionality did that on their own. If 100 years from now, USB Type-C remains a tediously outdated but ever present means of hooking things up, though, our descendants will have our love of bureaucracy to thank.

They would thank us far more if we passed a standard prohibiting bureaucrats.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

Share on:
Follow On:

Start the Conversation

Be the first to comment!

You need to be logged in if you wish to comment on this article. Sign in or sign up here.