The case against mandatory universal standards

Regular reader Kevin Corcoran sent me another short article, this time on why requiring all charging cables to conform to the same standard is a really bad idea. I particularly like his last paragraph, which asks us to imagine what would have happened if such a standard had been imposed at any time in the past.

Here is Kevin:

I am a technician. I enjoy new gadgets and gizmos and I enjoy reading about the development of these things. So it caught my eye when I saw that a few Democratic senators (including, of course, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) were pushing for the government to implement a universal charging cable standard.

What drew the ire of senators is that Apple has two different charging cables in its lineup. Most non-Apple devices, such as Android phones and laptops, use USB-C. And many of Apple’s products, such as their MacBooks and some high-end iPads, also use USB-C. But the iPhone and many other devices use Apple’s own Lightning cable. Senators share that this is the wrong way to do things, and want to force Apple to put USB-C on all its devices.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of Apple-owned cable. I would have liked it to have completely switched to USB-C a while ago. USB-C can charge devices quickly and transfer data quickly, and this can be a minor hassle if you’re traveling with multiple devices. That said, I think the senators are completely wrong here.

First, having a legally binding standard for charging cables is a surefire way to stifle innovation. Smartphone ports and chargers have gone through several stages of evolution since they first hit the market; This process would not have been helped if companies from the beginning needed to get government permission to try a new standard, or if they were all required to use the same standard. If that were the case, I doubt the ports and chargers would still be in the condition they were 10 years ago today. Second, using old standards is a common cost-saving method for budget devices. Android phones have been using USB-C as a standard for some time now, but until recently it was very common for low-budget phones to use the older micro-USB standard as a way to save on hardware costs and sell to consumers at a lower price. Price universal standards will not only slow down the rate at which we can acquire new technologies, but they will also limit the ability of tech companies to use older standards to offer lower-cost options to consumers with larger budgets.

Looking back, I don’t see a point in the past where it was a good idea for the state to point to a particular technological development and say, “This is where – this is where all companies and consumers need to be, simultaneously, moving forward.” It’s easy to see why this was a bad idea in the past, as we now know of all the continuous improvements that have been made since then that could be thwarted by such a move. There is nothing magical about this moment that would make a universal standard in August 2022 a wise move. Senators and others who think they can dictate otherwise for consumers everywhere are indulging in Hayek’s deadly arrogance.

Now, here I am, DRH, with my additional thoughts.

It is understandable that Bernie Sanders would favor such a coercive proposal. Above all, recall the statement he made in 2015:

You don’t necessarily need 23 underarm spray deodorants or 18 different pairs of sneakers to choose from when children are starving in this country.

He’s right that you don’t need 23 underarm spray deodorants. Only one will do Unless it’s me and the rest of you will be damned.

Or sneakers? I have plantar fasciitis in my right foot and I finally got a pair of sneakers that seem to be making it better, not worse. The brand is Ultra. The sneakers cost me about $130. Does spending my money mean some children are going hungry? no To say that, you have to believe that my next best choice for $130 is spending it on feeding the kids. It doesn’t. But whatever I spend it on, it’s my money and there’s a company out there that I want so badly. More choice is generally better, not worse.

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