It can be annoying to run out of smartphone battery power — and even more irritating to find someone with a charging cable in the nick of time, only to discover it’s not compatible with your device.
A solution may be coming from an unlikely source: the European Union.
EU lawmakers agreed this week to forge ahead with a plan to push device manufacturers — namely Apple — to all use the same, standard charger for their devices.
In Europe, it could spell the end of the iPhone’s signature Lightning cable. And despite protests from Apple, the decision may force the tech giant to adopt a universal charging cable for users around the world.
What does the EU want?
Aiming to cut down on electronic waste, European officials have been asking cellphone makers to agree on a common charging cable for more than a decade. In 2011, they even put out a video showing several people eating from the same spoon to illustrate how “life is easy when one solution satisfies all.”
While most new devices now use the same type of USB connector, Apple products remain the major outliers, with iPhones and most iPads still charging and transferring data through the company’s proprietary Lightning port.
As early as 2009, major cellphone manufacturers agreed to harmonize their chargers and adopt the Micro-USB standard. Apple found a workaround, though: it sold adapters and ultimately kept its own, separate type of connector.
On Thursday, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted overwhelmingly (582-40) to finally get a handle on this problem, and soon. They ordered the EU Commission, the executive branch, to take action by July and “introduce the common charger without any further delay.”
Polish MEP Roza Thun said they expect a proposal to establish a standard common charger for smartphones, digital cameras, e-book readers and tablets and similar devices within the next six months.
The resolution doesn’t mention what type of charger should be adopted, but the USB-C standard is now the most common among newer devices.
Will this really help cut down on waste?
The European legislators say it will make a big difference in reducing electronic waste. Their resolution notes “around 50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated globally per year, with an average of more than 6 kg per person.”
It says a growing number of people own more than one device and that the electronics tend not to last for very long.
“These trends lead to the production of additional e-waste, including chargers,” the resolution reads.
The MEPs’ goal is to cut down on the number of different chargers that users need to buy — and which ultimately end up in a landfill.
“We are drowning in an ocean of plastics, cables, chargers and other electronic waste,” Thun said.
Apple, though, says making users throw out their Lightning cables will actually create additional garbage and irk customers.
What could it mean for Canadians?
If Apple is forced to comply with European standards by installing a universal connector — eliminating its Lightning port — it’s unlikely the Silicon Valley behemoth would create Europe-specific iPhone and iPad models. In other words, such a major redesign would probably be rolled out across new Apple devices around the world.
Jean Philippe Bouchard, a vice-president at the communications and technology analysis firm IDC Canada, said Apple is “not the type of hardware manufacturer that will design a specific device just for a market.” He noted several slight variations of the iPhone exist for different countries, but mainly to adjust for locally used frequency bands.
What kinds of chargers are available now?
German MEP Andreas Schwab suggested European lawmakers were to thank for reducing the number chargers “from 30 to only 3” since 2009.
USB-C is now the most common type of charger for new smartphones. Recent Samsung, Google, Motorola, Huawei, HTC and LG models all have it. USB-C generally ensures faster charging and data transfers than older types of USB connectors. It’s also reversible, meaning a user is less likely to damage a device by trying to jam in the connector the wrong way.
Micro-USB connectors may be older and slower, but they’re still used in lower-end models on the market.
Apple’s proprietary Lightning cable remains highly popular due to the sheer volume of iPhones on the market. Apple no longer publicly discloses how many it sells, but in 2018 the company said it had shipped some two billion mobile devices to date.
What does Apple say about the change?
Apple has pushed back against standardizing connectors, saying the change would create more waste and that eliminating the Lightning cable isn’t necessary.
“We believe regulation that forces conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, and would harm consumers in Europe and the economy as a whole,” Apple said in a statement earlier in January.
The company commissioned a study by the Copenhagen Economics research firm, which showed “consumer harm” —the cost to consumers — from a regulatory-mandated move to a common charger would cost at least 1.5 billion euros ($2.2 billion), and that environmental benefits would total less than 10 per cent of that amount.
Stuart Robinson, the U.K.-based director of the handset component technologies service at Strategy Analytics, said Apple’s resistance to change is likely due to the profit it makes from producing and selling its own accessories.
“They add a huge markup for chargers that can only be used for their devices,” he said.
But, for the sake of the environment, he said, they really ought to get on board with a standard connector.
What about wireless charging?
Wireless charging may yet prove to be a longer-term solution, but only if all smartphone makers can get behind a single standard, meaning one kind of charger could be used for various phones.
Manufacturers are already moving in that direction. Unlike charging cables, some wireless chargers can handle newer Apple, Samsung and LG phones, among others.
Some chargers even come with a bonus feature: the ability to charge a phone, wireless earbuds and smartwatch, all at the same time.
The newer type of chargers remains less common, though, and Robinson noted they still aren’t widely available in cafes and airports.
“Wireless charging,” he said, “still is not utopia.”