This week, European Union lawmakers agreed on new proposals to force manufacturers of everything from smartphones and headphones to digital cameras and tablets to use the same universal charging port: USB Type-C. The new rules are planned to take effect in late 2024, after which those devices that charge via a wired cable will have to do so via a built-in USB-C port.
The biggest impact of this legislation will likely be on Apple’s iPhone. While the rest of the smartphone industry has gradually converged around USB-C as a single, standardized wired charging port, Apple has steadfastly stuck to Lightning, the proprietary connector it introduced with the iPhone 5 in 2012. EU law could finally force it to go further.
For now, the EU rules are only a preliminary agreement and must be approved by both the European Council and the European Parliament before they become official. This is expected to happen after the summer recess, which ends on September 1. It comes into effect 20 days after, and most manufacturers then have 24 months to comply, which is where the fall 2024 compliance date comes from. The exception is laptops, as the kinds of high-wattage USB-C chargers that these devices require are less common than phone chargers. Instead, they have 40 months, which brings us to about early 2026.
If Apple wants the iPhone to have a physical charging port after fall 2024, the EU wants USB-C to be the only option. It can’t just offer an external dongle like ten years ago† The most recent public drafts of the proposed legislation specifies that the USB Type-C connector used for charging must remain “accessible and operational” at all times, meaning a detachable dongle is unlikely to break it. That’s because the EU rules are designed to: Reduce e-waste, with a universal charging standard that hopefully means more chargers can be reused instead of ending up in landfills. The EU estimates that the rules could reduce 11,000 metric tons (more than 12,000 metric tons) of e-waste annually and save customers €250 million (about $268 million USD) on “unnecessary charger purchases”.
We have a deal on the common charger!
This means more savings for EU consumers and less waste for the planet:
mobile phones, tablets, cameras… all use USB type C
harmonized fast charging technology
unbundling of charger sales #SingleMarket #DigitalEU pic.twitter.com/qw2cJV4RY0
— European Commission (@EU_Commission) June 7, 2022
New flagship iPhones are usually announced every September, meaning Apple’s 2024 iPhone range (probably called the iPhone 16) will launch once the legislation goes into effect. But the rules state that “there should not be any products on the market that do not comply” with the directive, said Desislava Dimitrova, a spokesman for the European Parliament. That means Apple may want to make the changes sooner, as it would have to modify or remove older models from the market. Apple typically continues to sell older models at a lower price for several years.
There are already reports that the iPhone maker could make the switch next year. Last month, renowned Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported that Apple could be ready to make the switch as early as 2023. Days later Bloomberg’s Confirming this report, Mark Gurman said Apple was already testing iPhones equipped with the connector. If correct, these reports suggest we could see an iPhone with a USB-C port a year before the new EU rules come into effect.
Of course, the EU cannot force Apple to make the change globally. But all iPhones sold in the European Union’s internal market should abide by these rules. In the course of the 2021 financial year, almost a quarter of Apple’s net sales came from Europe, and the iPhone was the best-selling product worldwide. The market is simply too lucrative for Apple to let go of this legislation. Apple could make USB-C iPhones and ship them exclusively to the EU, but given Apple’s emphasis on supply chain efficiency, which means it sells a limited selection of very similar devices around the world (with only a few special models as an exception), that approach seems unlikely.
An Apple spokesperson declined to answer questions about how the company plans to comply with the upcoming legislation.
There’s at least one way Apple could avoid having to ship USB-C ports on its phones, and that’s thanks to wireless charging. Current EU law only covers wired charging, so if charging a phone wirelessly only, it could bypass the EU charging harmonization rules altogether.
It’s a theoretical distinction, as portless phones don’t really exist outside the realm of some concept phones and publicity stunts. But it’s important given the rumors that Apple has considered going down that route with the iPhone. These rumors have been circulating since Apple introduced the MagSafe wireless charging standard with the iPhone 12 line. Those rumors have faded lately, though, and a decision to stick with wired charging could explain why Apple seems relatively uninterested in building out an ecosystem of MagSafe accessories.
Apple has resisted the EU’s attempts to standardize around USB-C. In feedback submitted to the European Commission last year, the company argued that the regulation could “delay the introduction of favorable innovations in charging standards, including those related to safety and energy efficiency.” It also said the new rules could increase e-waste in the near term “by initiating removal of existing cables and accessories.” It has a point. With an estimated 1 billion iPhones in use worldwide by early 2021, that’s a lot of charging hardware that becomes obsolete over time. And all these customers need new USB-C accessories to replace them.
As my former colleague Chaim Gartenberg wrote last year, Apple’s concerns could have as much to do with Apple’s bottom line as they do with e-waste or innovation. Since Lightning is a proprietary connector, any accessory manufacturer that wants to support it must go through Apple’s MFi program, which can help Apple gain a share of the lucrative iPhone accessory market.
The irony is that, despite its opposition to putting a USB-C port on its phones, Apple has been one of USB-C’s biggest champions in other device categories. On the laptop side of its business, the company went all-in on USB-C in 2015 when it released a MacBook with just a single USB-C port in addition to a headphone jack. In any case, Apple embraced USB-C too soon and forced users around the world into the much-discussed “dongle life”. Apple has also brought USB-C to an increasing number of its iPads, such as the iPad Pro and, more recently, the iPad Air.
(As a side note, while devices subject to EU rules should be able to charge via USB-C, they don’t have to use it if their nothing but form of charging. That means MacBooks that charge through MagSafe — the laptop version that is — are still free to do so, as long as their USB-C ports can charge them as well. And that’s already the case with Apple’s latest MacBooks.)
When the legislation comes into effect in its current form, it won’t just be the iPhone that Apple will have to switch from Lightning to USB-C in the EU. According to an European Council press release, headphones, earbuds, wireless mice, and wireless keyboards would all be required to use USB-C for wired charging. That would cover the AirPods Max, AirPods, Magic Mouse and Magic Keyboard, all of which currently use Lightning.
The EU is not only asking smartphone makers to use the physical USB-C port, but also plans to standardize fast charging for phones, where Apple is starting to fall behind its Android-based competitors. The iPhone 13 Pro Max reported costs of less than 30W, while Samsung’s USB PD compatible Galaxy S22 devices can extend to 45W. The EU also hopes to standardize wireless charging in the future.
The new EU legislation is far from being transposed into law. It needs to be finalized at a technical level and approved by both the European Parliament and the European Council. But between the bill and the Digital Markets Act, which include stipulations that iMessage must partner with other smaller messaging platforms and that Apple must allow third-party app stores on the iPhone, the organization is forcing major changes on Apple. And the iPhone maker will have little choice but to play around with it if it wants to continue to profit from one of its biggest markets.