The EU has decided that there should be one port to rule them all; USB Type-C. Lawmakers say this new legislation will help to curb rising e-waste attributed to consumer electronics through standardisation of ports, chargers and cables. Whilst the phone industry has all but transitioned to this standard, one major smartphone maker has remained committed to a proprietary connector. Will the EU’s latest move force Apple to finally re-think its strategy?

In a recent press release, the European Union announced new legislation that aims to reduce electronic waste (and consumer prices) through the standardisation of USB Type-C on devices that are charged via wired cables. By Autumn 2024, all mobile phones, tablets and cameras sold in the EU will be required to use USB-C as the common port for charging. This means that consumers will no longer need to purchase proprietary cables for electronic devices, worth an estimated saving of up to 250 million euros per year and 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually. The EU hopes that this will usher in a new age of peripheral compatibility and charging clarity for consumers, with the legislation also requiring companies to provide user-friendly information on the capability of chargers to help guide purchase decision making.

The move is a big win for consumer groups, who have long argued that USB-C adoption would significantly reduce waste, manufacturing and environmental costs associated with the mass production of proprietary devices and peripherals. The new legislation take aim at Apple, who’s Lightning port will have to be scrapped in favour of USB-C within the next two years or face the consequences of EU regulators. In the last few years the company has opted to no longer include charging bricks in an effort to use less materials, but now Apple is being pressured to make a much more meaningful contribution toward reducing e-waste as a result of proprietary consumer electronics. How will they respond?

A Standard Port Or Port-less?

Apple has grown to become a trillion-dollar company with a sizeable market share of the mobile device market through its phones, wearables and personal computing devices across the globe. The company has around 1 billion active iPhones world wide, and has sold as estimated 2 billion phones as of 2020. With strong market share, a vertically integrated business and strict operating requirements for their third-party partners, Apple has long commanded a seat at the table when it comes to dictating the future of consumer electronics. Yet now the company is forced to adopt a position it has traditionally avoided; integrate with the status quo. So how will Apple respond to legislation that requires the smart phone maker drop a part of its unique identity and become interchangeable?

Who doesn’t love faster data transfer speeds, quicker charging and more durable cables?

Rumours have been swirling that the next iPhone could see Apple finally dump the proprietary Lightning connector that it introduced way back in 2012 alongside the iPhone 5, replacing the old 30-pin dock connector. This move would not be unprecedented, as the company has already shifted over to USB-C on their iPad line, beginning with the iPad Pro in 2018. Outside of interoperability with existing cables and a reduction of e-waste, the technical and practical benefits from adopting USB-C should likewise delight consumers. After all, who doesn’t love faster data transfer speeds, quicker charging (via higher power delivery rate under the same voltage) and more durable cables? Consumers would also benefit from less expensive cables due to the widespread availability of third-party cables, chargers and peripherals.

Apple also can’t go back to the playbook of simply offering an adaptor to address EU compliance like it did in 2011. Not only would that produce more e-waste, completely circumventing the founding proposition of the new laws, but it would directly contravene the requirement for a Type-C connector that is “accessible and operational at all times”. A dongle or adaptor is not permanently affixed, nor ubiquitous, thus failing on that sticking point.

Alternatively, the company could choose to ditch the port altogether. Apple already produces wireless charging products and has been rumoured to be experimenting with a port-less iPhone design for some time. Whilst this would adhere with the EU legislation (which only specifies wired charging), it would be a nightmare for consumers if we were to go with today’s current standards for wireless charging and data transfer. The dominant inductive charging standard, Qi (“Chi”) is widely adopted but somewhat fragmented due to various vendor enhancements, meaning experiences may vary depending on device and charger combination. Wireless data is also a mixed experience, with 5G still in its infancy and sub-par cellular reception in many countries. And Bluetooth file transfers are simply out of the question.

The simplest solution would be to introduce a new phone that features a universal USB-C port, sold not only in the EU but also made available in all markets. Rumours persist that the phone maker is planning to introduce this new model in 2023, ahead of the 2024 cutoff. By complying with the legislation in this manner, Apple would need to find a new value proposition when selling Type-C cables, as the company has been known to sell peripherals at above market prices. Consumers would suddenly have the ability to forgo expensive prices by shopping elsewhere.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how Apple responds to the changes brought about by the new law. As the process moves forward, they will need to do more than submit feedback arguing that this type of regulation could impede their ability to introduce “beneficial innovations in charging standards”, a tactic used in recent times to fight back against this very outcome. With 1 billion iPhones in use today there are a lot of devices that will soon feature outdated charging technology.

Homogeneity Can Be A Good Thing

Sure, it’s long been argued that all modern-day smart phones look the same and do the same things. But sometimes, standardisation can be a good thing. Sure, it may make for boring or lackluster product launches, but do we really need to buy a new phone every time the latest flagship drops? Consumers have been opting to keep their phones for an extra year or two, and phone makers have started to recognise consumer’s cratering interest in gadgetry. Perhaps now that will extend to chargers and cables, meaning less devices ending up in landfill and less resources used as a result of lowered consumer demand.

Policy makers have spoken; embracing standards saves you money, and the planet.