Switched On: Green Plug tries to replace the worry warts (Part 2)

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|05.20.08

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Ross Rubin
May 20th, 2008
Switched On: Green Plug tries to replace the worry warts (Part 2)
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

The last Switched On discussed GreenPlug, a startup that is trying to create a new standard for universal AC adapters. The environmental benefits GreenPlug offers are enormous, like the reduction of power caused by keeping energy flowing to a fully charged device, and the great reduction in waste currently caused by the need to keep manufacturing, shipping and disposing of the billions of AC adapters produced every year (many of which are practically wed to a single product).

Even without GreenPlug, there has been significant movement over the past few years toward the acceptance of the mini-USB port as a connection standard for portable devices. Sony, for example, now offers USB charging on devices such as the PSP and Sony eReader, where others previously required proprietary adapters. The USB Implementers' Forum is working on new guidelines to ensure better compatibility for chargers and devices using the popular port that was designed first for data transfer. And there is now legislation in place in China that mandates that any phone sold there must enable USB charging.

However, USB has limits in terms of the wattage that it can deliver and can't charge, for example, notebook PCs, as well as many camcorders, digital cameras, and other products. Nonetheless, in a nod to the growing momentum around the USB connector for cell phones and other low-power gizmos, GreenPlug has designed its connector to resemble a mini-USB port. A GreenPlug adapter can charge mini-USB products that don't have its chip, even though it won't offer power-saving benefits in that circumstance.

So, the onus is on the company to make the incremental case for its technology around higher-power portable electronics, particularly notebook PCs. There's significant long-term economic rationale in GreenPlug's business model, offering long-term cost savings for device manufacturers, an expanded market for accessory companies, and a broader ecosystem for easier power solution stocking for retailers. The company is even participating in a group dubbed "The Alliance for Universal Power" that is expected to attract leading retailers to its cause

The scope of what GreenPlug is attempting is incredibly ambitious for a startup. It will take, at best, years for the technology to become significant enough to have a series of compatible accessories become useful and it is unlikely that all companies will sign on. Consider Apple with its proprietary MagSafe adapter that the company promotes as a competitive advantage. GreenPlug responds that there are ways that even existing devices can take advantage of GreenPlug's power-saving intelligence. For example, it could create custom adapters that were tuned to the battery capacity of popular devices. That would be an inelegant kludge, but not much more of one than the various tips that are required for "universal" solutions today.

GreenPlug may have come across great timing to launch its disruptive endeavor. As its tag line, "One Plug. One Planet," reflects, its opportunity remains strongest while the public consciousness of the myriad environmental issues of consumer electronics (like phantom power consumption) remains high.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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