Title text: Fortunately, the charging one has been solved now that we've all standardized on mini-USB. Or is it micro-USB? Shit.
For any engineering task, there are numerous ways a given problem can be solved. The more complex the task, the more room for diversity. That's all well and good for a one-off problem, but if a design is meant to be iterated over time, or if an entire industry is solving that same problem, part reuse and interoperability become issues to deal with. Standards thus came to exist so that industries could avoid wasting resources reinventing the wheel, whilst offering their clients a certain amount of simplicity and compatibility between vendors.
But, standards have issues of their own. They don't accommodate every use case, they might have restrictions or royalties attached, and people tend to be plagued by Not Invented Here syndrome. So, competing standards have a tendency to arise to address different perceived needs. After a while, the market for competing standards gets messy and hard to follow, and integrating systems built around competing standards gets burdensome. As a result, someone eventually takes on the challenge of creating a universal standard that everyone can rally around.
This almost never works. In many cases, a new standard fails to displace the incumbent standard, and eventually loses funding and support, becoming a relic of history. In many other cases, it only penetrates far enough to survive, ironically making the situation messier. The latter situation often ends up becoming cyclical, with new standards periodically rising and failing to gain traction.
- Power adapters are notorious for varying from device to device - partly to try to prevent dangerous voltage/current mismatches, but partly just because manufacturers all chose different adapter designs. Mobile phone chargers have slowly been converging towards a common USB-based solution, but laptops are still a long way out, despite the adoption of yet another standard, IEC 62700. Randall notes that there was initially additional complexity due to the fact that there were also competing USB types, but thanks to the European Union's common external power supply specification, micro-USB comprehensively won the day. It remains to be seen whether the release of the new USB Type-C specification will reopen this war.
- Character encoding is, in theory, a solved problem - thanks to the Unicode project, all common letters in the largest world languages can be found in UTF-8, and rarer symbols are in the larger but slightly more complex UTF-16. However, obsolete encodings like ASCII and Windows-1252 have stuck around, and still cause weird bugs in old software and websites to this day.
- Unlike the other examples, there has been little or no effort by instant messaging companies to make their services interoperable. There's more value to keeping IM as a closed platform so users are forced to use the company's software to access it. Some software, like the Trillian chat client, can connect to multiple different services, but there is essentially no way to, for example, send a Facebook message directly to a Skype user.
- How Standards Proliferate
- (See: A/C chargers, character encodings, instant messaging, etc.)
- There are 14 competing standards.
- Cueball: 14?! Ridiculous! We need to develop one universal standard that covers everyone's use cases.
- Ponytail: Yeah!
- Situation: There are 15 competing standards.