For the last thirty plus years, the hobby industry has been largely built around the concept of openness — that any, say, speed control, from any manufacturer, can work with any motor, or receiver, or vehicle that the user wants. This has lead to a lot of hodge-podging, but it also fostered competition and drove down prices, because no single company cornered the market on anything.
Today, I want to talk about how that foundation for our industry is being jeopardized. It will likely start the hobby industry down the road leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and, eventually, a series of "walled gardens" between which nothing can be interchanged. This future is now, and the first shot fired in the revolution centers around a surprising and seemingly innocuous component: the humble battery connector.
A battery connector may seem like a strange thing for this wide-ranging issue to revolve around — I certainly thought so at first look. When you take a step back, however, and look at other industries, the connector is often a topic of hot debate. When Apple changed the dock connector on their iPhones and iPads between the 4th generation and the 5th, there was an outcry from the public. All the cords and accessories they had would no longer work with their new devices. Recently, the same thing happened with the headphone connector on the newest iPhones.
When you look at the R/C world, there are a handful of connectors in use, from Deans to EC3, XT-60 and more. The dominant connector in the R/C surface world, right now, seems to be the Traxxas connector. For as long as the connector has been around, it was made available to many battery manufacturers, probably with a licensing agreement from Traxxas. We've carried batteries from Venom, Duratrax, Dynamite, and SMC in the past, all with Traxxas' proprietary connector attached.
This will change in the very near future. Traxxas has chosen to remove their connectors from the overall market, selling them only direct to dealers like us in packages consisting of two connectors each. Third-party battery manufacturers, like the ones listed above, will no longer be able to offer batteries with Traxxas' connectors. Basically, if you have a Traxxas vehicle, and you want an off-the-shelf battery with a Traxxas connector on it, you will have only one option: Traxxas' own batteries.
That's right: Traxxas is eliminating their competition in batteries by removing their connector from the market.
To be fair, Traxxas is well within its rights to do this — they designed, built, and patented the connector, after all. I'm not arguing that Traxxas can't do this. I'm saying they shouldn't.
For the average customer, this means that prices to operate Traxxas vehicles will quickly rise. For example, our most popular battery costs just $40. The least expensive comparable battery from Traxxas costs a whopping $63. That's an enormous $23 surcharge just to bear the Traxxas name.
It's not just battery manufacturers that can't get the connectors, either. Companies that made adapters and charge leads will also be affected by this, meaning unless you want to solder your own charge lead or adapter, you can't use your non-Traxxas charger, nor can you simply adapt over to a more open connector. It's possible that Traxxas will someday release an adapter to another connector, but I wouldn't hold my breath. You could, of course, cut off the Traxxas connector and replace it, but that would void your warranty — ditto for any brand-new battery.
I can hear people shouting at me, pointing at Deans and how they dealt with their own connector. It's true that Deans connectors were protected by patent for years, but there are two key differences in how Traxxas is handling this and how Deans handled their connector. First, Deans connectors were always available to license, for a price. Second, and this is easily the most important distinction, Deans never produced vehicles. This is a real problem because Traxxas now controls the entire ecosystem. They are essentially walling their products off — only Traxxas products allowed. If they have you on the hook for a truck, now they basically have a guaranteed battery and charger sale, as well.
I've spoken to Traxxas about this, at length, and their reasoning behind it stems from two places: the first, a desire to be less targeted in lawsuits for faulty implementation of their connectors, which probably has some validity. If you reduce the number of third-parties using your connectors to zero, well, there will be fewer battery owners throwing lawyers your way.
The second reason, I believe, is more telling: they aren't in the business of helping their competition. I don't have the exact quote, but that's basically the gist. I couldn't believe they would say that out loud, to a dealer no less. I was momentarily speechless — though if you know me at all, you know that condition didn't last long.
The fact is this: Traxxas can basically do what they want. They don't rely on anyone else to survive anymore. All of hobby distribution could dry up, hobby shops all go caput, and Traxxas will still do just fine. They can afford to be anti-competitive.
This action by Traxxas is not good for hobby shops, it's not good for third-party companies, and most importantly, it's not good for consumers, who will see their costs rise significantly if they buy into the Traxxas ecosystem. In truth, the only entity this benefits is Traxxas themselves, and they're not even trying to hide it.
I can't say for sure that if Traxxas hears from its fans that it will change its mind, but it doesn't hurt to try. If you enjoy your Traxxas product, email them, call them, or write them and tell them you're not happy with their decision. Tell them you want more competition in the market, not less. Tell them they aren't holding to the principles that made the hobby industry what it is today. Tell them, because a wholesale abandonment of those principles erodes the foundation of the entire thing. It might just collapse under the weight of one too many anti-competitive business decisions made in some boardroom without ever considering the most important point of view: yours.
UPDATE :: JUNE 2019
It’s been two years since this article was published, and no real crisis ever emerged. Head over to a follow up article looking back on what happened since, and why we were wrong about the connector crisis.