Here Come the Universal Smartphone Chargers!

A year-and-a-half after an EU commission requested research into a universal phone charging standard, various telecommunications bodies around the globe have approved micro USB as the universal standard to charge data-enabled mobile phones. It’s good news, but even better is widespread support from handset makers all around the globe, which should reduce the number of redundant charging solutions for consumers and, according to the GSM Association, will eliminate 51,000 tons of such duplicate chargers from being manufactured on a yearly basis.

Earlier this month, two European standardization bodies, CEN-CENELEC and ETSI, approved standards for a universal phone charger, and 14 manufacturers signed an agreement to honor the plan, including: Apple (s aapl), Emblaze Mobile, Huawei Technologies, LGE, Motorola (s mmi), NEC, Nokia (s nok), Qualcomm (s qcom), Research in Motion (s rimm), Samsung, SonyEricsson (s sne) (s eric), TCT Mobile, Texas Instruments (s txn) and Atmel. Based on the agreement, new micro USB chargers that can work for multiple devices should begin to appear early this year, although there’s room to compromise: Companies can use proprietary plugs as long as they include a universal adaptor.

The EU commission hopes the standard will gain support outside of its home region and the odds of that happening increase with each new standards body that adopts the universal cell phone charging approach. Just today, the IEC, the international standards and conformity assessment body for all fields of electrotechnology, adopted the universal standard as well. Aside from the benefit of producing fewer charging solutions, the IEC notes that both handset manufacturers and consumers will see cost benefits because devices won’t need to ship with a charger. Essentially, when a new handset is purchased, the universal charger from a prior phone can be used.

As positive as the news is for smartphones, it raises an interesting question for the next new device class: tablets. While currently available tablets use a standard USB charger, I’ve already noticed that the Galaxy Tab re-charges much faster when using the included power brick as opposed to charging it from a computer. This is because the Tab’s power brick supplies 2 Amps of current, while most USB computer ports only provide 500 to 900 mA. My fear is that other tablets follow suit and we end up repeating the lengthy process of establishing a charging standard for tablets.

For now, however, data-enabled cell phones far outsell tablets: IDC estimates that 401.4 million mobile phones were sold in 2010, while roughly 17 million tablets were purchased last year. So a universal phone charger offers much more bang for buck at the moment, and for next few years as well.

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