Europe May Show Aggression in Its Attempt to Kill Apple’s Lightning Port

iPhone Charging Cable Lightning Credit: Apirut Sir / Shutterstock
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The issue of enforcing a standard charging port on portable devices is once again under debate within the European Union, which has long been pushing for standardization of connectors with an aim to reducing waste and making things easier for consumers.

For the past decade or so, the EU has “encouraged” the industry to develop common chargers, but has generally found this soft approach to be a failure. In a briefing published on the European Parliament website, the Commission noted that it doesn’t feel that its objectives have been met.

The Commission’s approach of “encouraging” industry to develop common chargers fell short of the co-legislators’ objectives. The voluntary agreements between different industry players have not yielded the desired results.

As a result, the Commission plans to debate the matter and have a future plenary session where it will make a resolution, possibly to legislate a requirement that all mobile device manufacturers use a common charging standard.

Voluntary Compliance

The European Union began pushing for this standardization over 10 years ago — back when Apple devices still used the 30-pin Dock Connector. While Apple was one of 14 companies that signed a “voluntary memorandum of understanding” back in 2009 to standardize on micro USB, it instead subsequently moved to its own proprietary Lightning Connector in 2012, offering a Lightning to MIcro USB Adapter as its “solution” to comply with its promise to deliver Micro-USB compatibility.

Technically speaking, the new EU standards published in 2010 allowed Apple this wiggle-room, since the stated goal was to reduce electronics waste by allowing users to keep their existing chargers when purchasing a new mobile device. Instead of a whole new charger, users could simply purchase a $19 (USD) adapter that would allow them to charge their iPhone using whatever Micro USB charger they happened to already have.

In fact, when the Lightning to Micro USB Adapter was first launched in 2012, it was available only in Europe. It took a few more months before it arrived in North America, however since it sold for the same price as Apple’s standard Lighting to USB cable, it was really only a practical option for those who had a very specific need to use a Micro USB connection.

‘Binding Measures’

At least some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are now calling for “binding measures” that would force all devices sold in the EU to support the same chargers, regardless of manufacturer. This would include not only mobile phones, but also tablets, e-book readers, and “other portable devices,” that would encompass things like cameras, portable GPS devices, and radio controlled toys.

However, things have also gotten a bit more complicated since 2009, with USB-C having emerged as a new standard that still hasn’t been fully adopted. While EU regulators note that all of the current popular standards are on the table — Micro-USB, USB-C, and even the Lightning connector — the reality is that if they choose to mandate a standard it will almost certainly be USB-C, which would force many other companies to move on from Micro USB as well.

Fighting for Lightning

Naturally, however, Apple is continuing its fight to keep its Lightning port, although it’s certainly not about to license it to anybody else. Apple has made an argument to the EU in the past suggesting that forcing all devices to use the same charging port would “freeze innovation” while also suggesting that it could be bad for the environment in its own way and “unnecessarily disruptive” for consumer.

Apple is pointing to the more than one billion Apple devices that have shipped with a Lightning connector over the past seven years, along with the rather large ecosystem of third-party accessory makers who have embraced Lightning cables and connectors. Forcing a switch to another connector type, Apple says, would “render obsolete the devices and accessories used by many millions of Europeans” which would result in its own “unprecedented volume of electronic waste.”

In a sense, of course, Apple does have a point, and the company also notes that it’s committed to supporting USB-C, but only “through a connector or cable assembly,” which it has effectively begun doing with the iPhone 11 Pro Max by its inclusion of a USB-C charger and USB-C to Lightning cable.

Since most modern USB-C chargers now use a detachable cable anyway, it’s possible that this is no longer nearly as serious of a problem as EU regulators may seem to think. Certainly, it would seem like Apple’s USB-C to Lightning cable is a far better approach than the 2012 Lighting to Micro USB adapter, but whether this will placate Members of the European Parliament who are debating and deciding on this issue is another matter entirely.

An Inception Impact Assessment from late 2018 recognized that the “current market trend” is toward chargers with detachable cables, along with the move toward wireless charging standards that could eventually obviate the need for any kind of common connector.

The assessment also suggests that EU regulators have not ruled out re-implementing the “voluntary approach,” which hasn’t technically been in effect since 2014, when the original Memorandum of Understanding expired. However this could still be ignored entirely, or might simply continue to result in workarounds such as additional adapters that might not be satisfactory for the European Union’s objectives.

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