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design: /di·'zin/

   n a deliberate plan for the creation or development of an object. vt: to create something according to plan.
   good design: /'gud —/ the product of deliberate forethought and careful understanding of the purpose of a subject, resulting in a subject which significantly improves its utility, allowing it to integrate seamlessly and naturally into the role for which it is intended.
false synonyms: fashion, decor.

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The U in USB Means Universal... Why isn't It?

I got this doodad while attending a function a while ago. It's one of those retracting cord things. One side is a standard USB connector, and the other is a fitting that plugs into a particular cell phone's charging jack. Three other little attachments allowed you to charge three other varieties of phone, if you happened to have one of those.

Neat, huh?

I don't think so: it speaks of a serious design dysfunction.

All phones have chargers. Many have cables and cradles for synchronizing your contacts. And almost all are proprietary... but they needn't be. None of these things does anything a USB cable can't already do.

The point was made rather cleverly with a GPS I bought for an evaluation a while ago. It's a bluetooth device, but can act as a "mouse GPS" too (meaning only that you can connect it to another device using a cable.) What was interesting was that the only input/output interface this device had—other than three status LEDs—was a miniature USB port and an on-off button.

Here's what's remarkable about the thing, though: the charger, rather than being a brick-on-a-string with some proprietary connector, is just a typical charger without a cord. The only thing it had coming out of it was a USB connector. Another one—for car charging—was the same idea: cig-lighter tip on one end, USB port on the other. Charge the GPS? Sure, just plug it into a USB source—your computer, or either of the provided chargers—and voila.

Now that's neat!

Why? Well, if you spend any time traveling, you know what it's like: in addition to the clothes, travel nowadays means you tote along a bunch of technology: a notebook, a PDA, a phone (hopefully the last two are one and the same,) and maybe an MP3 player and a camera. Except on the most trivial of trips, each of these need charging, so you're stuck carrying around a bunch of chargers. More bricks on strings. (And let's not even get into international travel, where you have to have voltage converters, or a bunch of little plug converters for each of your chargers.) Many people decide to just "do without" and hope their devices will last, or they deep six them into the bottom of the luggage when the batteries finally wear out. Too bad, because it doesn't have to be that way.

The clever ones among us go out and buy those USB charger things—proprietary cables that are USB on one end, and charges-whatever on the other, like the doodad I got for going to that event. Then they ration out time on their notebook's USB port(s) in hopes that most of their devices get charged (except that one can only do that while the notebook is turned on, and oh, by the way, when it's doing that, it is charging itself very slowly.)

The notebook needs a pretty heavy-duty charger, so you're going to be stuck carrying around that brick and string. But for everything else, imagine only having to carry a single tiny charger. A cheap USB mini-port (about the size of a lighter, and no more than $10 online) and one or two USB cords and voila, everything is charging! Oh, and that same USB cord would be used for synchronizing your contacts on the PDA, downloading songs to your MP3 player, or transferring pix from your camera, so it's doing double duty, too.

Okay, maybe you don't travel that much. But you do bring your phone to work and, oh darned, you forgot to charge it. Well, if you were "smart" you spent some money and got a second charger for just this reason. In a few years' time, your phone dies, and you chuck all those otherwise good accessories into the nearest landfill.

What's that? Your MP3 is dead in the middle of your road trip? Well, if it were charged by USB, no big deal... just plug it into the USB car charger.

The point is, if all equipment manufacturers used USB to charge, and then included one or maybe both chargers, and a standard USB cable, users wouldn't have the problem. Just grab the cable and any charger—it doesn't matter which, you've probably got one in each room, one in each car, and probably a couple stashed in the drawer at work—and plug in.

That's the ideal. And some manufacturers are heading toward it. Now, if only all of them would. I'm getting tired of carrying around all those bricks on strings, and I bet you are, too.