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Sometimes Oversight is a Synonym for Interference

I’m a big believer that we need government oversight for some things. Without it, we would be overrun by snake oil salesmen. But sometimes governments attempt to regulate something that doesn’t need regulation.

Yesterday, EU lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to require device makers to standardize on a device charging connector so that consumers don’t have to buy a new charger every time they buy a new device. This is already a faulty assumption since when such standards change, very inexpensive adapters appear on the market nearly immediately to fill the need for those who want to continue using the adapter they have. If the EU is successful at dictating a standard (at least for the EU), it would almost certainly be USB-C which is the direction the industry is going anyway. For example, despite the fact that Apple has had standard USB in its computers for more than a decade (perhaps two?) and has their proprietary Lightning connector in all iPhones, almost 4 years ago they switched the MacBook Pro line to USB-C. The latest iPad Pro has USB-C as well. Some of the latest Android-based smartphones have USB-C. The industry is moving in this direction on its own. It does this based upon its understanding of consumer demand, something that tech companies spends a great deal of money to understand extraordinarily well. I think I’m being kind when I say that most governments are not well known for understanding the needs of the populous to his level of specificity.

Apple has been complaining to the EU about this but their concerns are falling on deaf ears. They claim (and I agree) that this kind of government interference stifles innovation. Apple’s own Lightning connector is a perfect example of this. At the time Apple was developing the original iPhone, they knew that a USB connector was likely to be the way to charge their new device. The problem they discovered was that USB plugs only go in one way. The average user will get it wrong half the time and then have to turn the plug over and try again. This seemed silly to Apple. Why not simply design a plug that is universal and thus can be plugged in either way? So they innovated and the Lightning connector was born. Years later USB-C came along and provides the same functionality. Based upon the fact that Apple is ahead of many other tech companies by already using USB-C in its MacBook Pro and iPad lines, it’s very likely they plan to move to USB-C as their universal standard. Ironically, I have no doubt that Apple is planning a slow rollout of USB-C for precisely the reasons that the EU is concerned about. Apple knows users don’t want to switch power adapter standards very often because many buy secondary charges.

Imagine if the EU and other governments had dictated this standard prior to the modern smartphone. We would likely be stuck with USB 2.0 which would be awful. And imagine tech companies having to convince law makers to change laws so they can introduce innovations. Part of the EU law makers motivation is to reduce electronic waste and empower consumers to make sustainable choices. Those are admirable and necessary goals. However, by dictating a standard, law makers who are not experts in electronics, are making choices about how those goals should be met. Lawmakers should instead create laws that promote sustainability such as has been done with automobile emissions. What they should not do is be too specific about how that sustainability is to be accomplished. Car companies are not told how to reduce emissions, just that they must. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what EU lawmakers are doing by legislating a power adapter standard. How would it be to have a tech company that has come up with a more sustainable power solution be unable to produce it because the law dictated a standard?

Again Apple is likely moving to USB-C anyway but that’s not really their point. Interference like this stifles innovation. We as consumers are worse off in the long run. Imagine the government deciding that it’s highly inefficient to have programmers writing code in all these different languages. Wouldn’t we be better off with one language to rule them all? If it was Xojo, then sure, though I’m biased. Of course this makes no sense at all. And that’s really the point that Apple is trying to make. They don’t like the precedence this is setting and I don’t like it either.

There are times when government oversight is sensible. We need it for medical treatments. We need it to make sure things we purchase are safe. We need it when we are going to be interfacing with large infrastructure built by the government such as the width of lanes on highways. But government oversight should be applied to only that which absolutely requires it and nothing else. Because if we are not careful, 2040 could end up looking an awful lot like 2020.