Not-So-Missed Connections

Just like your pile of old chargers, the world of mobile connectors was always messy. Standards did not help. Will regulation?

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Yuri Litvinenko, who has written some fascinating tech pieces for us. Today he dives into the once more complicated world of phone connectors. Read on!

Today in Tedium: The European Parliament, which embarked on a quest to unify mobile chargers more than a decade ago, is about to make a law out of it. While we don’t have to deal with literal dozens of different connectors, it would be nice for everyone to agree on a single connector (or to be forced to). But history shows that the industry, no matter the progress, is notoriously bad with two things: making chargers and following standards. Today’s Tedium ponders nonstandard mobile connectors. — Yuri @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from a video of a kid taking a metal knife to their phone … to get a radio signal (the musical kind) from the charging port of his Sony Ericcson phone. Really.

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“The problem is [the agreement], it should be mandatory, and it should happen right away.”

— Marco Caputo, a now-former Italian member of the European Parliament, sharing his opinion to The New York Times on the 2009 industry agreement across the GSM Association to eliminate different chargers. The agreement, which Apple did not participate in, came a few months after a similar memorandum of understanding initiated by the EU officials—a voluntary document that proved to not work as envisioned by the European Commission. While it was signed by Apple, the wording allowed the company to comply with it by offering a Lightning-to-microUSB adapter.

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The iPod was ahead of the curb on FireWire. (Misha Husnain Ali/Flickr)

With the original iPod, Apple was a forerunner of using a common computer connector

These days, the European Union’s battle for a common charger has re-emerged as a conflict thanks to Apple and its Lightning connector. While the European Commission did not single out Apple, their connector is the only one of three “charging solutions” mentioned which isn’t part of a USB standard. The iPhone maker wasn’t trying to shy away from the debate, arguing via the Financial Times that regulatory harmonization “stifles innovation rather than encouraging it.”

If you know your Apple, the statement looks interesting, and not just because of a potential for jokes on the innovation or courage. The iPod, Apple’s first widely-popular portable device, was introduced with an industry-standard connector agreed upon with Sony and IBM—and it actually got them the head start in a race for computer connectivity.

In the 1990s, most gadgets connected to a PC or a Mac a serial cable. The connection standard, while having a nearly universal transfer format, did not have a uniform plug, so every manufacturer had to come up with their own compact connector. However, gadgets were not universally expected to be connected to anything but the mains, and data cables were often an overlooked accessory for repairmen and power users.

Connecting a phone to a PC did not come with any essential benefits: sure, you could add your own black-and-white operator logos, but you didn’t have to. Even PDAs, which got popular only after the Pilot introduced sensible data synchronization, could be used without ever getting connected to a computer. By contrast, the iPod was useless until you uploaded some music to it, so there was an incentive to make the process as smooth as possible.

Enter the FireWire. The modern serial port was a staple of contemporary Macs, and, being 30 times faster than the original USB, it eliminated the common bottleneck of early digital music players. What’s just as important, though, is that the 6-pin FireWire connector allowed the iPod to draw the power via the same port. The wall charger had the same socket as the device itself, making it more similar to a modern USB-C charger than concurrent barrel plug adapters.

Despite being more modern than other charging solutions, the iPod’s FireWire inclusion depended on way too many factors. The iPod was a Mac-only device at first, while PC manufacturers were slow to adopt the FireWire due to its licensing model. There was a matter of size as well: The iPod was just thick enough to accommodate for a bulky 6-pin socket, and any attempt to slim it down would’ve meant looking for alternatives. Annoyingly, the more compact, 4-pin i.LINK connector, developed by Sony independently from other contributors, omitted the power lines.

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The iPod Dock reshaped the connector for Apple. (James F. Clay/Flickr)

In April 2003, Apple released the first iPod without a built-in FireWire port. The new connector, similar to ones used by PDAs of its era, allowed the company to release a dock with a USB port to make the player appeal to Windows users. More importantly, the extra pins allowed the dock to pass audio and playback controls through. In the end, the connector made the gadget even more popular while allowing accessories and entertainment manufacturers to capitalize on its popularity. The 30-pin dock connector turned out to be so popular, there were adapters to revert the USB on the iPod Shuffle back to the dock connector.

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The Motorola Razr was the first time many phone users relied on something resembling a USB standard. (Wikimedia Commons)

Adopting a standard would not prevent manufacturers from abusing it

While Apple was enjoying the first fruits of controlling a port used in the most popular media player, Motorola was about to release the Razr V3—a shot-in-the-dark novelty phone which, alongside with various revisions, broke the sales record of 100 million units. The Razr, unlike many other phones, relied on a miniUSB port—compact, cheap and fully compatible with the USB 2.0.

Motorola, embracing miniUSB in what would be one of the most popular phones ever, could push the standard’s adoption forward. However, what’s found its way on the handset was notably different from the white paper. The charger used by Motorola had an extra resistor and a different pinout, and the phone could not draw power from any other charger. Even using the PC as a charger (the idea called “innovative, even ingenious” by the New York Times a year prior) required installing Motorola’s drivers.

There was a rationale for messing up the USB standard: it was a quick-and-dirty hack that allowed an “upstream” miniUSB port to operate as if it was a “downstream” one. Using pins for the primitive bit masking, a phone could detect a headset or a hands-free module and temporarily use the connector for audio input and output. The implementation worked—although it probably made some USB engineers weep.

It wasn’t the only time when a device manufacturer had its own idea of how the USB standard should work. Palm’s Pre, a webOS phone made by numerous people behind the iPhone, used a blatant hack to report itself to the iTunes like an iPod, allowing it to sync with the program directly. When Apple blocked syncing devices that didn’t have Apple’s vendor ID, Palm accused Apple of turning a part of a USB specification into a “lockout code..”

In what looked like the weirdest negotiation move, Palm wrote a letter to the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), which assigns vendor IDs, about its intention to use Apple’s ID—and then, despite getting a no-go from the head of USB-IF, did it in a webOS update.

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Sony Ericsson’s FastPort reminds one of what the USB standard saved us from. (Wikimedia Commons)

Five strange mobile ports we hope we’ll never have to use again

  1. Sony Ericsson’s FastPort and its predecessors. In the 2000s, both Nokia and Sony Ericsson used connectors with exposed pins on the phone and unprotected ones on the plug, which was not by any means a durable design. But while Nokia’s Pop-Port was only used by data cables and accessories, the solution by Sony Ericsson relied on it to draw power—and boy, were those two tiny pins fragile. The FastPort was actually an improvement over a similar plug used by Ericsson phones before the joint venture with Sony. That one, used since 1999 at least, kept appearing in the Sony Ericsson phones till the mid-2000s.
  2. Alcatel’s cryptic data cables. Before a French telecom essentially relegated its mobile phone division to China, it made a bunch of competent entry-level and mid-range phones. Many of them could be connected to a PC, but you would be forgiven for owning one and not knowing that. The port, hidden under a battery cover, required a cable with a set of pogo pins—and, sometimes, a clamp to hold the phone in place.
  3. HP Veer’s magnetic port. Defending the iPhone 7’s lack of the headphone jack, Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller noted that the internal components are “fighting for space within that same enclosure.” In that case, making a webOS phone the size of a credit card was quite a brouhaha, and sockets were the causality. Released in 2011, the Veer didn’t go all-in on wireless charging and cloud sync, despite having both hardware and software to do so. Both microUSB and a headphone jack with a single MagSafe-like connector.
  4. The “wide microUSB.” In a perfect world, the USB-C plug would have been introduced alongside the first revision of USB 3.0. But the world is a cruel place, and the USB Implementers Forum bestowed the SuperSpeed microUSB upon it. Additional pins, used to achieve greater transfer speeds, were placed on the side of what’s essentially an old microUSB connector. Some Samsung flagships, starting with the Note 3 in 2013, used the new microUSB plug, although they switched back to its less-embarrassing predecessor before adopting USB-C.
  5. HTC’s extUSB. A similar, but unofficial USB extension was done in 2005 by HTC by adding audio I/O pins to a connector similar to miniUSB and otherwise compatible with it. While Windows Mobile fans seemingly weren’t bothered by the omission of a standard headphone jack, HTC including the extUSB to the first-ever Android smartphone proved to be a mood killer for some.

There is one more port which a story so tangled, it reads like a satire for the whole world of mobile connectors. In 2005, the Consumer Technology Association announced they would create an open standard for media players, docks, and car kits. With Microsoft on board, the standard looked nothing but the attempt to counter Apple’s 30-pin dominance.

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An example of a PDMI cable.

By 2008, the only device which used the newly-developed PDMI (short for Portable Digital Media Interface) was Slacker G2, a device in between a conventional iPod competitor and a streaming service client. The low adoption pushed the developers to make PDMI a passthrough for USB 3.0 and DisplayPort, making the latter version not quite compatible with the former. It didn’t help: PDMI could only be found on a couple of early Android tablets and a presidential Android phone which Donald Trump seemed to be ignoring. Microsoft’s own Zune players kept using their own cables, while Samsung tablets used the PDMI connector but not the actual pinout.

You might understand by now while I don’t feel confident in the course of the industry. It’s a miracle that, with all the not quites, we’ve managed to come to the point when there are only three prominent connectors. We have even managed to not fry everything with non-compliant USB-C cables and plugs which are not quite wide—most of us, at least.

Will the EU officials bring any order into the house? That’s the question which we would start getting possible answers by July when the rules will be finally adopted. If there is one thing which no doubt feels positive, it’s Apple’s decision to go with USB-C on their computers and high-end tablets. If the regulation pushes them to apply the same principle to their more popular hardware, that would be worth it.

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Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks again to Yuri, who found a way to make old phone chargers fascinating.

Yuri Litvinenko

Your time was just wasted by Yuri Litvinenko

Yuri Litvinenko is a web news editor at Vedomosti, a Russian business newspaper. When not covering the current affairs, he takes historical notes and writes off-beat stories—preferably on the history of consumer technology.

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