USB Connectors Wasting 4 Million man-hours per year

The lack of symmetry for USB connectors is wasting 4 Million man-hours per year.
And that is using conservative numbers.

The problem with asymmetric connectors

To the engineers and designers in charge of specifications for those connectors:
- Why do you need connectors to be asymmetric?
- Whatever your reason is, can’t you come up with a symmetric connector with some logic that would solve the problem?

1/ The computation

How do we get to 4 Million man-hours?

Jeff Ravencraft of Intel Corporation, Chairman and President of the USB Implementers Forum said “Over 6 Billion products are in the market, and over 4 Billion ship a year now.”
There’s even a commercial for USB claiming out loud those 6 Billion devices and it was back in June 2009. With 4 Billion new devices every year, we should actually be around 10 Billion now.

But let’s start with 6 Billions devices to be conservative, even though by now we should be around 10 Billion.

6,000,000,000 USB devices out there.
Let’s divide by 10, assuming only one device out of 10 is in use (the rest being obsolete devices rotting in boxes in your attic)
Let’s divide by 2, assuming we insert the wrong way only half the time (50% chance of doing so, not taking Murphy’s law into account)
Let’s multiply by 52, assuming we plug them only once a week on average
Let’s multiply by 1, assuming we waste one second plugging it back correctly
Let’s divide by 3600 seconds to have the result in hours

6B / 10 / 2 /3600 * 52 = 4.3 Million

What does 4 Million man-hours mean?

Let’s compare this number to numbers we can grasp.

At 40 hours per week, people work around 2,000 hours per year.

Thus 4M man-hours translates to:
- 2,000 years of work for a single man
- 20 years of work for a 100 employee company
- 5 complete weeks of work from all the Google employees (Google has roughly 20,000 employees)

4M man-hours is also $32 Million dollars at the California minimum wage of $8.

4M man-hours is also $100 Million dollars at the 2008 US median household income of $50,000, or $25 per hour.

These amazing numbers don’t take into account the amount of frustration generated by having to struggle with mating two simple pieces of hardware.
These man hours wasted have pain and anger written all over them, unlike the 5 Million hours wasted playing Pac-Man on Google (unless those ghosts make you angry).

Companies worrying about their employees wasting time playing online games at work and taking radical measures like banning certain websites like Facebook better off step up and demand smarter features from their computer manufacturer, whether it’s a mouse you never have to clean (we finally got that) or simple symmetric connectors.

And this is just for USB (and yes, even the latest USB 3.0 has asymmetric connectors).

Now there’s still Firewire, VGA, DVI, HDMI, RJ-45, RJ-11 phone jack, PATA, SATA, Power connectors, SD cards and all other card formats like CompactFlash and XD, … even your batteries!

Although we start to finally see some much needed evolution for the batteries with the recently announced Microsoft GangstaLoad InstaLoad technology.

Have you ever been frustrated wasting time mating two connectors?
How many times a day do you plug USB connectors?

Let’s refine those numbers and see what we have for all those others poorly designed connectors.

Maybe finally we’ll start seeing symmetric connectors, like the good old Cinch connectors or even my earphone’s Jack!

UPDATE: The solution could be very simple as Engadget reports UltraTek provides a solution to that problem with a simple connector.

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9 Responses to “USB Connectors Wasting 4 Million man-hours per year”

  1. LOL says:

    You guys are barking up the wrong tree. I happen to think the USB connector (or any other rectangular/non-circular connector like RJ45) is the best design. Imagine if you have to connect it to a jack in the back of your PC or electronic equipment without having to look at it. You can get it right by feel in two tries at most. Now imagine doing the same thing with a circular connector like any derivative of the DIN connector, like the PS2 keyboard/mouse, S-Video. Report back once you have done the research on these idiotic, non-keyed connectors :-).

    • PlF says:

      Thank you for adding the DIN connector to the list of asymmetric connectors.
      You’re confused between the definition of symmetric and the definition of circular.
      DIN and PS2 are circular but they are not symmetric at all so they fall into the category of bad design we’re talking about.

  2. Ninja-Inside says:

    Well a symmetric connector will lead to increase in no of pins and hence the shape and size. A USB consist of DATA+, DATA-, GND and VCC, Now if u want to come up with an idea of real symmetric, then u need to have atleast three wires on left, right, up and down with centre one as GND or VCC. You can imagine the size of it and its the size we are trying to reduce not the manpower…!!! Thats why mini USB was invented. We always have to optimize between things and at this point we want to make things smaller..!!!

    And i don’t want to talk about the wastage of Million man hours, because thats been utilized for SOMETHING, like connecting to a device. We call that as an overhead. If you really want to talk about wastage of Million Man Hours, how about facebook, orkut and other social networking sites including social blogs.

    Love from India

  3. [...] makes it difficult to get the usb plug into its socket on the first try, or at least gives you a 50/50 chance. Add in the complexity of todays computers with vertical and horizontal drives, drives on the back [...]

  4. TomR says:

    I think what’s wrong with USB is that while the shape of the connector is symmetrical, the pins are not. (Same issue with DIN and PS2 design).

    Firewire 400, for example, had an asymmetric connector so that it is obvious, at a glance or even by feel, which way it must connect. FW800 is kind of a step backwards — the shape is less obvious — although I still find it easier to identify than USB. VGA video connectors also had an identifiable shape. As does the AC power socket that is ubiquitous on the back of PC power supplies, audio equipment, and many other devices.

    Seems like a basic rule of Connector Design 101 should be, if you require that it only be plugged in one way, make this obvious from the shape of the plug.

  5. John Carter says:

    The fundamental problem of this Era is our inability to resolve the issue of externalized costs.

    The costs associated with this problem lands on the user, the costs of solving it lands on the manufacturer, and marketing deems it an too finicky and “unsexy” a selling point.

    Every SINGLE DAMN TIME I meet a hardware engineer I badger them about this issue.

    The worst I have seen is a connector that can fit both ways round (and work in only one way)…

    But wait, theres more!

    Each way round the 24 pins can be offset up and down one row, or left and right 5 columns (no you can’t see the offset, it’s half buried in the case)

    ie. 2 * 2 * 10 = 40 ways of connecting the two devices.

    Only one way works.

    It’s all I can do to refrain from given’em a swift kick between the legs for designs like this.

  6. Janet Gould says:

    I found this blog by googling “why are USB connections so badly designed?” after yet another frustrating go at plugging in a usb cord to the back of my Mac where I can’t see the slots very well. This time it took me 3 tries to get it right. I think I have personally used up a hundred or so of those millions of man-hours trying to plug in USB cords, at least half the time the wrong way.
    Once, I had a Dell laptop that had a connector with a little sort of pinched tab, like an ear, on the top It was easy to hold onto, and there was only one way to insert it. I don’t even know how many pins there were, it didn’t matter because the little thing on the top meant that you always put it in the right way.
    I’m glad to find some other people who hare my frustration with these ridiculously hard to use USB connections!

  7. Ricardo says:

    I agree with the author.
    One connector which comes near to the perfection is the magsafe power connector on macs.
    A similar usb connector would be great.


  8. Lukasz Przenioslo says:

    Why isnt it circullar, with inner circles? It would fit every way.