Yuck! Proprietary USB Cables

closeThis post was published 13 years 1 month 8 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

Chris Pirillo makes a good point in this video. Before I say anything further, you should watch it:

There, now that you’ve seen his ire, you can read my reasoning.

Plenty of us know that proprietary anything is usually bad for the consumer. Proprietary data formats force us to use the same program (switching would be a pain — manual re-entry — because the software company didn’t make a converter or export function). Proprietary procedures mean patents, trademarks, copyrights, or whatever, and mean no two companies will necessarily do things the same way. And proprietary connectors lock in an accessory market, with purchases often costing more than generic products would simply because the company that makes them has you in a death grip.

Now, while Chris’s reaction is an emotional one (no doubt inspired by a conversation on his IRC channel), he makes a very, very good point. Proprietary connectors do nothing but irritate the consumer. Finding which USB connector fits which USB device is a nightmare. I’m happy to say that my camera uses a standard Mini USB cable. My iPAQ uses a proprietary connector, but that’s because it performs more functions than just charging and synchronizing.

Microsoft and Sony use proprietary connectors for their gaming devices (these are only a couple examples), and as a result, you have to buy their authorized accessories. The prices can be whole factors higher (twice as much or more) than standard cables and connections.

Lego is also a user of proprietary connections. Within its Mindstorms robotics line, the cables used to connect the NXT computer with the various sensors and motors look, at first glance, like ordinary RJ-11 wiring, but the release tabs are pushed to the side, making them incompatible with other devices and standard cables incompatible with Lego’s products.

I haven’t had to replace any NXT cables yet, but there’s a definite boon to companies like Canon (and Olympus; my mom’s five-year-old camera also uses a Mini USB plug) using accepted standards. I could use the cable from either camera in the other in a pinch, or buy a standard camera cable at any electronics store should I lose or damage the one that I got in the box. It also means that if I have multiple devices that use the same connector, such as a camera, a phone, a PDA, and an external storage device, I can share one or two cables between all of them, as I’m unlikely to use more than a couple devices at a time.

So you see, standards are a good thing for the consumer. Even if the companies make a little less money, they’ll make up for it in consumer happiness.

Thanks for the inspiration, Chris!


I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.

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