This story from The Register gives a fairly ludicrous story of overreach from some German police. Seeing a young man in a railway station using an Apple iBook plugged into a power outlet belonging to Deutsche Bahn, they came to the conclusion that the laptop must have been stolen and arrested him. Upon discovering that the iBook was not stolen, rather than apologising and letting him go (and maybe leaving themselves open to a lawsuit), they charged him with “voltage rustling”, that is with stealing electricity worth €0.002 from the owners of the railway station. (Actually I would think that “current rustling” or even “power rustling” would better describe that actual physics of it, but that might be just me).
Eventually (and hopefully inevitably) sanity prevailed and the charges were dropped and the man released. All I can say is that however much respect I have for the property rights of German railway companies, and even if he is a “Greenpeace activist”, I have great sympathy for him.
Although battery technology is far better than it was a decade ago, as more and more things go wireless, portable batteries are more and more the weak link in our modern electronic world. And for a certain type of individual (that includes me) keeping an eye out for accessible power sockets is just something you do. If you are the sort of person who spends most of your time at home, at work, or commuting between the two places, you are not likely to be terribly familiar with this problem, but if you are instead the sort of person who travels a lot, or is constantly on the road (or, sadly, who does not presently have a job and likes to work in coffee houses) then this rapidly becomes one of the major problems of modern life. With laptop batteries still running down in only a few hours, accessible power outlets are like clean public toilets in New York City: you take advantage of them when you can. Topping up your laptop batteries when you have the opportunity is just something you do.
If you are not away from home, the key time period is really the time between when you leave the house in the morning and when you come home in the evening. Plugging your electronic devices in in the evening and disconnecting them in the morning is a relatively easy habit to get into. Modern teens learn this automatically, as having your mobile phone run out of power is today one of the worst kinds of social death. However, with laptop computers the problem is worse, current batteries are not powerful enough to allow users to get from the morning to the evening without a recharge if the laptop is being used heavily. Topping up your mobile phone battery can sometimes be an issue too, although mostly you can get from the start to the end of the day. And I won’t even start on the special needs of people with iPods.
I think the modern world needs better etiquette in this regard. Third places of all kinds need to offer electricity as a basic amenity, the way that they offer chairs. If I sit down in a cafe it should simply be assumed that I may need voltage, and a power socket should be provided beside the chairs. Restaurants should understand this. Airports should understand this and provide power in their terminals. Airlines should understand this and provide electricity in their handrests. Many airlines and hotels are pretty good at offering this sort of amenity for premium customers, but these kinds of needs are becoming mass market needs. (My experience is that of chains of coffee shops, Starbucks are quite good in terms of accessible power sockets. Their British competitors are less so. If Starbucks would make their WiFi free as well, I would never go anywhere else).
This may be merely a transitional phase, and with the advent of good fuel cells or similar we may find that we have plenty of power to last the day in all our devices. And of course electronics companies in general are doing what mobile phone companes have been doing for years: which is designing their products for low power from the ground But I tend to think this is a problem that will be with us for a while. The sad fact is that batteries do not obey Moore’s law, and practically everything else does. This means that however rapidly battery technology improves, technological demands on them are going to increase faster. Which means that social etiquette and business practices need to change slightly.
People like Perry de Havilland understand this. If you visit his house, there are plenty of places to plug in, there is WiFi in the house, everything is fine and charming. And he normally also provides really yummy food.
I mean, what a guy.