Electrons are electrons: price discrimination and phone accessories

Observation from a recent involuntary 8-hour layover at San Francisco airport, complements of incompetent United Airlines stranding half the passengers on a flight from Sydney after the plane was delayed.

This blogger had a HTC G1 out of juice and no charger. A quick stop at the local gadgets shop was necessary to find a way to power the device again. The iGo units are ubiquitious at airports and with a flexible arrangment of power unit and swappable tips, promise to power just about any device. Tips are sold seperately and this is where a bizarre pricing scheme enters into the picture: the tips for the Motorola Razr were priced $2 less than the tips for T-Mobile/Google G1. They are the exact identical form factor: mini-USB. Even if the G1 draws more current, that would be handled by the iGo power adapter which already has enough smarts to handle varying demand from an array of different models. A USB cable is a USB cable.

Presumably this was a case of price discrimination: since the G1 is a more expensive smart-phone, owners are assumed willing to pay more for accessories as well, even when they are virtually identical to accessories for a more basic phones. That may work in economical terms but much to the manufacturer’s dismay, electrons do not care if they are being delivered from a “premium” cable or basic cable. Mobile phone manufacturers are notorious for trying to create various lock-in effects, for example by restricting which chargers can power a particular phone in an attempt to create artifical differentiation between otherwise identical units. But paying more for the same copper connections does not make the current magically more capable of delivering electricity. (This is the same problem that vendors of expensive pointless HDMI cable face, with an error-corrected digital signal the quality of the cable is hard to compete on.)


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