Dongly Things

Time to declare war, I think, on little dongly things. More of them turned up in the post this morning. I'd ordered a new optical disk drive from an American mail order company and, because I live in that strange and remote place called 'Foreign', and also because I travel like a pigeon, I was keen to know, when ordering it, if it had an international power supply.

An international power supply is the device which means it doesn't matter what country you're in, or even if you know what country you're in (more of a problem than you might suspect) - you just plug your Mac in and it figures it out for itself. We call this principle Plug and Play. Or at least, Microsoft calls it that because it hasn't got it yet. In the Mac world we've had it for so long we didn't even think of giving it a name. Nowadays a lot of peripherals come with international power supplies as well - but not all. Which is why I asked.

'Yes, it does,' said Scott, the sales assistant.

'You're sure it has an international power supply?'

'Yes,' repeated Scott. 'It has an international power supply.'

'Absolutely sure?'


This morning it arrived. The first thing I noticed was that it didn't have an international power supply. Instead it had a little dongly thing. I have rooms full of little dongly things and don't want any more. Half the little dongly things I've got, I don't even know what gizmo they're for. More importantly, half the gizmos I've got, I don't know where their little dongly thing is. Most annoyingly, an awful lot of the little dongly things, including the one that arrived this morning, are little dongly things that run on 120VAC - American voltage, which means I can't use them here in Foreign (state code Fn), but I have to keep them in case I ever take the gizmo to which they fit - provided I know which gizmo it is they fit to - to the USA.

What, you may ask, the hell am I talking about?

The little dongly things I am concerned with (and they are by no means the only species of little dongly things with which the micro-electronics world is infested) are the external power adaptors which laptops and palmtops and external drives and cassette recorders and telephone answering machines and powered speakers and other incredibly necessary gizmos need to step down the mains AC supply from either 120 volts or 240 volts to 6 volts DC. Or 4.5 volts DC. Or 9 volts DC. Or 12 volts DC. At 500 milliamps. Or 300 milliamps. Or 1200 milliamps. They have positive tips and negative sleeves on their plugs, unless they are the type that has negative tips and positive sleeves. By the time you multiply all these different variables together you end up with a fairly major industry which exists, so far as I can tell, to fill my cupboards with little dongly things none of which I can ever positively identify without playing gizmo pelmanism. The usual method of finding a little dongly thing that actually matches a gizmo I want to use is to go and buy another one, at a price that can physically drive the air from your body.

Now why is this? Well, there's one possible theory, which is that just as Xerox is really in the business of selling toner cartridges, Sony is really in the little dongly power-supply business.

Another possible reason is that it is sheer blinding idiocy. It couldn't possibly be that could it? I mean, could it? It's hard to imagine that some of the mightiest brains on the planet, fuelled by some of the finest pizza that money can buy, haven't at some point thought 'Wouldn't it be easier if we all just standardised on one type of DC power supply?' Now, I'm not an electrical engineer, so I may be asking for the impossible. Maybe it is a sine qua non of the way in which a given optical drive or CD Walkman works that it has to draw 600 milliamps rather than 500, or have its negative terminal on the tip rather than the sleeve and that it will either whine or fry itself if presented with anything faintly different. But I strongly suspect that if you stuck a hardware engineer in a locked room for a couple of days and taunted him with the smell of pepperoni, he'd probably be able to think of a way of making whatever gizmo (maybe even the new gizmo Pro, which I've heard such good things about) it is he's designing, work to a standard DC low-power supply.

In fact there already is a kind of rough standard, but it's rather an odd one. Not many people actually smoke in their cars these days, and the aperture in the dashboard which used to hold the cigar lighter is now more likely to be powering a mobile phone, CD player, fax machine or, according to a recent and highly improbable TV commercial, an instant coffee making gizmo. Because the socket originally had a different purpose it's the wrong size and in the wrong place for what we now want to do with it, so perhaps it's time to start adapting it for its new job.

The important thing this piece of serendipitous pre-adaptation has given us is a possible DC power standard. An arbitrary one, to be sure, but perhaps we should probably just be grateful that it was designed by a car mechanic in an afternoon and not a computer industry standards committee in a lifetime. Keep the voltage level, design a new, small, plug and you have a new standard.

The immediate advantage of adopting it would be that you would only need one DC power adaptor! Think of that! Well, not exactly one, you might need a dozen of them, but they would all be exactly the same! Just get a box of 'em! They'll just be a commodity item like, um, well, I was going to say light bulbs, but light bulbs come in all sorts of different wattages and fittings. The great thing about having a DC power standard is that it would be much better than light bulbs.

Apart from doing away with endless confusion and inconvenience, the arrival of a new standard would encourage all sorts of other new features to emerge. Power points in convenient places in cars. DC power points in homes and offices and, most importantly, DC power points in the arm rests of airplane seats...

I have to own up and say that, much as a love my PowerBook, which now does about 97.8% of what I used to use the lumbering old desktop dinosaurs for, I've given up trying to use it on planes. Yes, yes, I know that there are all sorts of power-user strategies you can use to extend your battery life - dimming modes, ram disks, processor-resting and so on - but the point is that I really can't be bothered. I'm perfectly capable of just reading the inflight magazine if I want to be irritated. However, if there was a DC power supply in my arm rest I would actually be able to do some work, or at least fiddle with stuff. I know that the airline companies will probably say 'Yes, but if we do that, our aeroplanes will fall out of the sky' but they always say that. I know that sometimes their planes do fall out of the sky but, and here's the point, not nearly as often as the airline companies say they will. I for one would be willing to risk it. In the great war against little dongly things no sacrifice, I think, is too great.

Postscript: A decade after Douglas wrote this article, the European Union introduced harmonisation of mobile phone chargers. All data-enabled phones sold in the EU from 2010 must be chargable by USB. No doubt inspired by the new legislation, power points with USB sockets are already on sale in the UK, as pictured at the top of this page.

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