Computerworld

Energy crisis: Where's an outlet when you need one?

Mobile gadgets that need recharging are everywhere, but good luck finding an outlet
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld)
  • 11 January, 2008 10:12

The Consumer Electronics Show trade show is showcasing this year's batch of better, cheaper and cooler gadgets. Services that enable ever more powerful mobile capabilities abound. Wireless networks are popping up everywhere. It's now possible to travel around town, across the country and all over the world, working and playing online thanks to the collective efforts of thousands of companies and the enthusiasm of millions of users.

There's just one problem: Finding an outlet.

I'm writing this column while on a three-week trip through Mexico and Central America. I'm not taking time off; I'm "extreme telecommuting" -- working while traveling. I thought I packed my gadgets pretty well, taking everything I needed but no more than necessary. I'm currently staying in a private home -- roughly the Mexican equivalent of a bed-and-breakfast inn. I knew in advance that Mexico and El Salvador use U.S.-compatible plugs, so I brought no adapters. Imagine my horror when I discovered that the outlets in the house are two-prong plugs, rather than three-prong plugs. It's not a huge deal -- I could easily break off the grounding plug and ever so slightly increase my chances of being electrocuted to death, but I'd rather not.

I'm counting my blessings. In August of 2006, I spent some time on the Honduran island of Roatan. I pushed a column deadline right down to the wire before looking for a place to file from. Suddenly, the power went out on the entire island and stayed that way for eight hours. My laptop was fully charged, but all the routers and servers that provide Internet service to the island were out. The rumor on the beach was that somebody forgot to buy the diesel fuel that powers the generators.

Today's electricity issue reminds me how many times I have been outlet-challenged while trying to work outside my home or office, not just on sunny islands or in old Mexican homes, but in major international airports, coffee chains and even my own car.

It's an interesting problem that screams for a solution, because as gadgets get better, more numerous and more portable, the power provision fails to keep up. Functioning, compatible electrical outlets have become the weakest link in the chain of products and services that enable "anywhere computing."

A wall outlet is not something you can buy and bring along. Even solar-charging gadgets are very limiting for a power-hogging laptop. It would take all day in direct sunlight on a cloudless day to charge my laptop. Plus, my phone, GPS unit, e-book reader, music player and other stuff need to be charged, too.

I've found that outlet shortages are hard to predict and pop up in the most unexpected of places.

Fully charged, the only way to fly

An airport is a perfect place to plug in. You can charge your battery before a long flight and talk on the phone without burning down your battery, if you can find an outlet.

There seems to be plenty of electricity available for those loud, CNN-only TVs; unintelligible loudspeaker announcements; overly bright lights; ubiquitous, gigantic, computerized or lighted advertising; and electric cars that mow you down while you're sprinting from one terminal to the next. Why won't the airlines and airports supply electricity for customers to use as they really want: to charge their laptops and cell phones?

Some terminals have plugs, but they're few and far between and often beyond the reach of chairs. You'll often see people sitting awkwardly on the floor bent over a laptop just so they can use an outlet. Others somehow keep AC outlets totally unavailable to airline customers. Passenger desperation is palpable.

Recently, I spent a few hours waiting in a massive terminal at the ginormous Denver International Airport. The terminal had hundreds of rows of chairs at dozens of gates on both sides of a long walkway. Every fourth gate or so had floor outlets just on the walkway side of the chairs. There were hardly any people in the terminal, but every electrical outlet was in use. That meant huge expanses of nobody, then suddenly two people hunched over a floor outlet; then another vacant acre, then two more people hunched over another outlet. This scene repeated itself on both sides of the walkway all the way down the terminal. A few other unlucky souls were actually waiting for someone using an outlet to get up and leave. So sad. The business-traveler community is screaming for airport outlets and nobody answers their cries.

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On a recent trip to Germany for the CeBIT trade show, I marveled during a layover at the total absence of available plugs at the Zurich airport. It's a spectacularly sleek and modern airport. But I found myself trapped in Switzerland for hours before boarding an 11-hour flight to Los Angeles, desperate for juice. Alas, it was not to be. Instead of getting my work done on the airplane, I was now going to have to do it over the weekend after getting back from a grueling trip. Why do they hate us? And how do they vacuum the carpet?

Upon arrival at LAX for another stopover, I found plenty of outlets situated right next to comfortable chairs. LAX was built in the 1960s before anyone had laptops or cell phones, so naturally they installed outlets everywhere. I saw dozens of happy business people getting their work done, and one guy watching a movie on his laptop.

The best airport I've seen for business travelers is the major international airport in Seoul, South Korea. There, I was able to find outlets right next to chairs at every gate. The outlets were clearly labeled with voltage information, and there was even a free Wi-Fi connection! (Next time you fly from Dallas to Chicago, make sure you connect through Korea -- it's totally worth it.)

Recently, sponsored plug-in stations have been cropping up in airports. Some cell phone vendor or electronics company will install a tiny ad-laden table with barstools and a place to plug in. Nobody seems to like the barstools, and all would rather sit with their travelmates in normal chairs.

A few years ago, Microsoft announced ambitious plans to roll out a chain of airport bar/restaurants that featured as the main attraction electrical outlets and Internet connectivity on the table tops. Branded "Expedia.com Cafe," the plans were apparently scaled back. The only one I've ever seen is inside the old terminal at San Jose's International Airport. And it's nearly always empty, mainly because it's away from the gates and makes people feel like they've got to buy food.

Somebody has got to come up with a workable solution to this problem. Why don't the airports just charge the airlines another buck per passenger per flight and install an outlet next to every chair in the airport?

Coffee isn't the only source of energy

When I lived in Silicon Valley a few years ago, I remember walking into a Starbucks on the corner of Matilda and El Camino in Silicon Valley (a very major intersection) with a laptop in one hand, its AC adapter in the other and hope in my heart. The Starbucks, which was a huge, brand-new store, had 35 places to sit, 15 tables and exactly one available AC outlet. My hopes were immediately dashed. The plug was taken.

It's a pretty typical state of affairs. If there are four people in a Starbucks, two of them are plugged in. There's huge demand for electricity in places like Starbucks, which makes its fortune in part by luring customers who are looking for a place to hang out and use their laptops.

Here I was in the center of Silicon Valley. But without electricity, I might as well have been stranded in the Sahara.

Nowadays, I frequent my local Peet's Coffee & Tea, a smaller coffee chain. Once a week, I like to spend the entire morning working there. But if the one and only table with electricity is taken, I get my coffee to go and return home.

Do coffee joints deliberately limit outlets so you'll buy your US$5 coffee, then get out and make room for another sucker? Or are they the only people on Earth unaware that people like to use laptops in coffee houses?

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Forget horsepower, I want electrical power

Why don't cars have standard household electrical outlets? Why do they force you to use the cigarette lighter for electricity? Somehow, the car companies haven't noticed that most Americans don't smoke anymore, but nearly everyone carries cell phones, GPS devices, satellite radios, video cameras, digital cameras and other gadgets that need electricity. And because smokers can and do tend to carry lighters, those car cigarette lighters are obsolete. Obviously, everyone would prefer normal electrical outlets in cars.

The interior of my Prius is blighted by an adapter I bought at Radio Shack, which turns one cigarette-lighter outlet into three. That bulky adapter has something plugged into each of the three outlets. One powers my GPS, the second my satellite radio, and the third yet another adapter that turns the cigarette lighter into a three-prong plug outlet. Each cable plugged into it had to be purchased separately and takes up all kinds of space in the car. It's a lot of crap hanging off my dash, and it should be unnecessary.

Standard household outlets in cars aren't unheard of -- both the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix, which are essentially the same car with two brands, have them as standard features. Why don't all car companies do this?

The only industries that seem to have noticed that people charge gadgets are the business hotel industry and the home construction industry. Hotels nowadays typically offer lamps on the desks with at least one desktop three-prong plug. And new homes put outlets everywhere. But the food-service, airline and automobile industries have completely ignored the conspicuous demand by customers for electrical outlets.

I think it's time that, as consumers, we all should demand access to electrical outlets. Say it with me: "Power to the people!"