One charger for all

EU Commission prepares to take on Apple in its fight to reduce cable waste

“Has anyone got a charger?” That’s the most frequent request around the office these days. For all the advances in smartphone batteries, many of us still struggle to make it through the day without having to top up our devices. So close access to a charging cable is a must.

That is fine when you remember to bring your own equipment with you. But what if you don’t? Or if you have multiple devices that all take different cables? It’s like 10,000 USB C chargers when all you need is a lightning cable, to completely mangle Alanis Morissette.

Being the only iPhone user in a sea of Android fans is where things get a little tricky – but not for much longer if the EU has its way.

There are three main types of chargers: micro USB, USB C and Apple's lightning connector. Micro USB is the older of the standards, and is being replaced in most phones by USB C, or is now being used only in more budget devices. Apple's Lightning connector applies only to its own devices, of which Apple shipped 217.72 million in 2018 alone.


But the European Commission is taking on the task of making all phone chargers standard, with one connector for all. That would force all phone makers – Apple included – to adhere to the same standard, whether they want to or not.

In 2009, there were 500 million mobile phones in use in the European Union; there were more than 30 different types of charger on the market

The reasons for doing it appear, on the face of it at least, to be sound. In 2009, there were 500 million mobile phones in use in the European Union; there were more than 30 different types of charger on the market. That, the EU said, was a problem on two fronts. Apart from causing inconvenience to the consumer, this created unnecessary electronic waste. Every time a new device was sold, it inevitably came with a new charger, whether it was required or not.

Over time, that meant we got a separate charger cable and plug; once the cable inevitably broke, you could replace only one part. But it also meant a lot of unnecessary chargers and cables being created – a mountain of electronic waste that we can’t afford to keep creating.

Eventually, the European Commission decided enough was enough. In 2009, it got the major phone makers – Apple included – to sign up to a universal mobile phone charger for any data-enabled phones sold within the EU. The Memorandum of Understanding was signed in June 2009, and the mobile manufacturers agreed that they would harmonise chargers for new models coming onto the market as of 2011.

So if everyone agreed, why did Apple stick with Lightning? There was a loophole in the deal: manufacturers could use their own chargers if they offered an adaptor.

That agreement expired at the end of 2012, although some of its signatories extended it through “letters of intent” in 2013 and 2014. It was widely considered a failure though, mainly because of that loophole. What consumer would carry around a pocket full of easily lost adaptors just in case?

And now the phone makers have switched standards again, this time as USB C creeps into the market. The new standard was supposed to be a “one-size-fits-all” cable. Introduced in 2014 and first used in a phone in 2015, USB C was reversible, it was capable of carrying data and provide power, and it could deliver audio and video.

But that hasn’t solved all the compatibility issues. There are some chargers that support more powerful fast charging – but only if you use a specific plug or cable. And there are other issues to be aware of, such as the use of cheap, malfunctioning cables that could damage electronics by drawing too much power, or the fact that some USB C cables don’t work well with data transfer because they aren’t USB 3.0 or 3.1. It gets confusing quickly.

Apple is arguing that forcing it to switch to USB C would result in more waste

And there is still the Apple issue. Although the company used USB C in its 2019 iPad Pro and has introduced the connector to its Macbook range, there is no indication that the company will adopt it in its iPhones.

Could Apple be forced to abandon that stance? If the EU has its way, the company would have to fall in line with other mobile makers. But the company is arguing that it would be “unnecessarily disruptive” for its customers, and that forcing it to switch to USB C would result in more waste, even while it is intended to prevent it.

Apple may have a point about e-waste. The last time the company changed its connector was 2012, when it shifted from the 30-pin connector to the Lightning port. That was for a couple of reasons. Lightning was smaller, for a start, so Apple could make the iPhone thinner. The new connector was reversible too, unlike the 30-pin one, so there was no messing about trying to get it in the right way around. Making the change made sense and ultimately benefited users.

There are similarities with USB C being adopted across the market now. But Apple has argued against the (REF) introduction of USB C to the iPhone, saying it would be too wide for its phone design.

Apple has come out strongly against the regulation of phone chargers, arguing it would stifle innovation.

“Regulations that would drive conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones freeze innovation rather than encourage it,” the company told the commission last year. “Such proposals are bad for the environment and unnecessarily disruptive for customers. We want to ensure that any new legislation will not result in the shipment of any unnecessary cables or external adaptors with every device, or render obsolete the devices and accessories used by many millions of Europeans and hundreds of millions of Apple customers worldwide.”

Would Apple change its design to suit a single market?

There is another thing to consider. Apple has a tight enough hold on the accessories market. There is a certification programme – made for iPhone/iPad/iPod (MFi) – that hardware makers can put their accessories through. It covers the headphone jack, original dock connector and the newer Lightning connector, and AirPlay support. Pass the programme and you can put an MFi logo on your packaging; without it, there is no guarantee that the equipment will work with Apple devices in the way it was intended.

For example, if you’ve ever bought a cheap cable or adaptor for the iPhone, you may have seen a message pop up on the screen saying: “The accessory may not be supported.” No logo means no guarantee that it will work – or continue to work – with Apple devices.

If the company was to move to the standard USB, it may also have to loosen its control over that process. That could mean cheaper cables for consumers, but not necessarily a good experience. Cheap cables can break more easily or even, in some cases, damage devices. The MFi logo doesn’t guarantee the cable will last forever, but it gives people a certain level of trust in products.

If Europe forces Apple to change its lightning connector for a standard USB, would Apple change the entire production process to suit one market? While Europe accounts for millions of sales of iPhones each year, it's not the largest market for the phone maker. In the third quarter of 2018, analysts estimate it sold 10.2 million iPhones in Europe; in the second quarter it was 7.7 million, and the first quarter 10.2 million. Considering the total globally was 217.2 million, that's a small – although not insignificant – number affected. Would Apple change its design to suit a single market?

The argument may be once again superseded by technology. The flagship smartphones are already including wireless technology to charge your phone, taking cables out of the equation. But even that wasn't without its issues. When wireless charging was first introduced, there were a couple of different types; the eventual winner was Qi, which was adopted by Nokia, Samsung and subsequently Apple.

Now the wireless chargers are being built into furniture sold by retailers such as Ikea and while Apple's promised wireless charger never appeared, there are plenty of manufacturers willing to step into the breach.

But wireless charging is so far reserved for more expensive phones, leaving those who aren’t willing to spend a lot of cash on a smartphone that will probably be changed within three years, reliant on cables.

And that brings us back to the original argument: harmonising cables will ultimately reduce the number of them in circulation, and therefore cut down on e-waste. Apple may be facing a showdown with the commission over the plans, but it seems that some people in Europe at least will take up that fight.

“By delaying a regulatory proposal, the commission put the interests of one corporation over the interests of EU consumers.” – Additional reporting: Copyright The Financial Times 2020