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One cable to frustrate them all

Proprietary cables have stubbornly held on despite the availability of global standards like USB, resulting in functional devices being retired long before their sell-by date.

Johannesburg, 04 Dec 2019
Read time 5min 00sec
Richard Firth, CEO, MIP Holdings
Richard Firth, CEO, MIP Holdings

Don’t lose your proprietary cables on a business trip. These may be easy to replace in major urban areas, but venture even a little off the beaten track and it becomes an entirely different situation. Most people can offer you a USB cable, but that’s useless if your device brand decided to use proprietary cables.

“They are almost the same cable,” says Richard Firth, CEO of MIP Holdings. “Most proprietary consumer cables have a standard USB connector on one side. At some point during the data or electrical transaction, there is a conversion between a generally used standard and a completely locked one.”

Defenders of the practice point to performance reasons. For example, the famous square Apple cable in vogue a few years ago had 30-pins, much more than USB could offer at the time. But USB has caught up to, and even surpassed, proprietary consumer cables.

The performance argument is not as applicable as it once was, nor does it explain why power cables continue to apply different standards, or why there isn’t a proprietary arms race against WiFi or Bluetooth. Performance is not a sufficient explanation for proprietary consumer cables.

Back to proprietary?

Proprietary cables have stubbornly held on despite the availability of global standards such as USB. Some product lines end up frustrating their customers with proprietary connectors. A lost cable or broken strap can mean the end of a device’s usability, especially if replacement stock is hard to find in a region. Perfectly functional devices end up being retired long before they need to be.

At first, this may seem like a developing market problem, where it is expensive and sometimes impractical to stock parts for anything but the latest generations of devices. 

But Firth says proprietary cables cause burdens for established markets as well, including the US: “Retailers there stock a wide range of different products, many of which are cables for older generations of devices. Retail shelves and stockrooms have to be saturated with a large selection of different cables, even though most of those could be made using general standards such as USB.”

We could call this consumer bellyaching. We can always choose to buy something different. Nobody is forcing shoppers to get a product that uses proprietary connections.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate...

No power for you

When last did you try to borrow a laptop power cable? Do you even try? Likely not, because we already anticipate our laptop power cables to be unique enough that you can’t use another’s cables.

Laptops are prime supporters of proprietary cables. Proponents may say it’s to match the right power brick to the device, but universal connectors show that generally isn’t the case. Even laptops from the same brand rarely have the same power connector.

“I used to serve on the board of a school that recently pushed for all its pupils to have laptops," recalls Firth. “It’s important that each laptop can keep running through the school day. Since running out of power is a typical laptop failure, we enforced a standard so that every laptop could be charged with available cables. A lot of parents complained, since our choice wasn’t the cheapest for them. But if we didn’t apply a standard, there was a considerable risk that many of those laptops would run out of power because students forgot the cable at home or lost it.” 

Why was this even necessary? There are universal standards for power connectors and data cables. USB offers the opportunity to create ubiquity, but device manufacturers skirt this when they can. Maybe there are sound engineering reasons behind it, but most of the time, profit appears to be the motive. Do proprietary cables result when companies choose profit over customer experiences?

Ubiquity boosts progress

Sometimes proprietary cables are about quality control. USB standards have led to a deluge of poor-quality cables, and poorly made USB-C cables can damage devices. But this is not a motivation for proprietary cables. Many USB cables are superior to proprietary options. There are better ways to manage the quality of cables than to keep them in a walled garden, which through their exclusivity doesn’t enable scale through ubiquitous adoption.

“We’ve seen how powerful ubiquity is,” says Firth. “Ubiquity propelled the adoption of desktop PCs, smartphones and the Internet. Standards, not exclusivity, created a connected world, where access to information and technology has become easy.”

Proprietary standards can drive innovation and can become widely adopted, especially when consortiums back them. From USB to HDMI, we can thank consortium standards for those breakthroughs and conveniences, but only when they can become a broadly adopted standard. When proprietary overstays its welcome, it punishes users at the benefit of the brand.

Innovation is also not an excuse. Bluetooth and Wireless are much harder standards to implement, but they are also ubiquitous. Even vendors who love their own cables implement these standards. So, why is it that wireless works wherever you connect to it, but a cable with a standard USB connector on one end still wants to be unique? Where is the logic?

“I don’t think I see it. But I’m too busy looking for that special cable to charge my phone,” Firth quips. “Do you have one I could borrow?”

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