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iPhone to be dragged to the USB Type-C era, kicking and screaming

We’ve reached a point where Apple’s refusal to outfit its iPhones with a USB Type-C port instead of the proprietary Lightning has become a bit of a meme. Even the iPad Pros from 2018 upwards and the iPad Air (2020) have USB Type-C now, and so do the MacBooks, iMacs, and Mac minis. Consumers are perplexed and a bit irritated, but it seems that EU lawmakers are also disgruntled.

So, come this September, it is expected that a new legislation will be proposed at the EU parliament, making it mandatory for all smartphones sold in Europe to have one standardized charging port. And all signs point to it being USB Type-C as the current best for its combination of data-transfer, up to 100 W power supply capabilities, and interchangeable sides.

A long time brewing

It was way back in 2009 when Brussels first mediated a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), signed by various smartphone manufacturers, which stated a voluntary switch to a common charging port. At the time, that was the micro USB B. Apple did continue on to produce iPhones with a proprietary Lightning port in the future, but that was in compliance with the MoU, which allowed this as long as there were adapters for the proprietary port on the market.

Now, in 2021, it seems that the effects of the memorandum were minimal, as we are all swamped with a plethora of chargers, cables, and adapters, and mobile phone chargers are said to be responsible for 11,000 - 13,000 metric tons of e-waste per year.

Back in 2019, the EU commissioned an Impact Study on Common Chargers of Portable Devices. The document defined three types of problems:

  • Customer inconvenience and confusion - mixing and matching the right cable with the right charger for your phone

  • Environmental impact - the e-waste produced by the devices (manufacturing, transportation, future waste when discarded)

  • Economical impact - the need to buy different chargers and cables for all your devices

The study took into consideration not only that ports on the cables and devices need to be standardized, but also that charging bricks themselves often vary in power output and charging speed. Which is why the study suggests that any “phone charger” that’s sold in the EU should provide a minimum of 15 W power output (this is pretty much the minimum standard nowadays, but some companies still go as high as 40 W, 65 W, even 100 W).

The document is an interesting thought experiment to sift through and see how such legislation could affect not only the consumers but also the manufacturers. Some solutions, like allowing for proprietary connectors so long as the manufacturer includes a USB Type-C adapter in the box with the phone, were also considered, but are generally viewed as a bad solution — they wouldn’t help much with customer confusion, nor are they good for e-waste management.

It’s a tight rope to walk on and may even end up having a minimum impact — if any — in the long run. It’s worth considering that such a law — if accepted — will usually give manufacturers a leeway of a few years going forward, as they need to set up their plans and manufacturing lines accordingly. And, in a few years, it’s very probable that USB Type-C will become the de-facto standard by order of natural selection. Yes, even for Apple’s iPhones.

The study itself claims that USB Type-C is expected to completely replace USB Type-B by 2023, but questions whether or not Type-C is at a probable end of its lifecycle itself. It was accepted in 2016, and while it’s still the best way to solve both charging and data transmission with one port, it’s not improbable that a new connector may be developed in the next 5 years. In this case, the EU would have to move fast to yet again investigate the new standard and possibly enforce an upgrade deadline, which would become one massive hassle.

This is a point that Apple itself targets when it states that such a law might “stifle innovation” — nobody will be interested in developing such a new port since they wouldn’t be able to sell their devices in the EU with it. Or, they will need to go through years worth of red tape to get it through to market.

Still, we may never see USB Type-C on an iPhone

A port-less iPhone — we’ve been hearing rumors of that happening by 2022 or 2023. It’s very probable that Apple’s high-profile competitors, like Samsung, will follow suit. This means that, by the time this law kicks in, iPhones, Galaxies, and other competing phones may have long become port-less, hole-less electronic bricks of the future.

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