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Europe wants one device charger to rule them all—and it doesn’t come from Apple

September 23, 2021, 1:30 PM UTC

The European Union is making another push to force Apple to adopt the USB-C standard in its iPhones, this time using legislation.

The European Commission on Thursday proposed making USB-C, with fast-charging capabilities, “the standard port for all smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld videogame consoles.” Wireless charging would not be included in this legal change, the Commission said, as this “is still a developing technology with a low level of market fragmentation.”

If industry comes up with a new wired charging technology, it added, the law could be revised to “ensure that the technology used is not outdated.” USB-C is already widely used in mobile devices, though its predecessor, micro-USB, is also still found in many lower-end phones and gadgets.

“European consumers were frustrated long enough about incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers,” said the EU’s digital (and antitrust) chief, Margrethe Vestager. “We gave industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions, now time is ripe for legislative action for a common charger. This is an important win for our consumers and environment and in line with our green and digital ambitions.”

Although the name went unmentioned, Apple is clearly a primary target of the measure. The company has adopted the now-ubiquitous USB-C standard for many of its devices, including the MacBook lineup and the iPad Pro, but it is stubbornly sticking to its proprietary Lightning charger for the iPhone and many iPads. Apple charges a great deal for its Lightning chargers and peripherals, and it also makes money from licensing the technology to other makers of iPhone and iPad accessories.

Long-running saga

The EU’s drive to standardize mobile-device chargers has a long history, and—Apple aside—it’s actually been pretty successful.

A dozen years ago, at a time when there were around 30 charger types out there for mobile phones—these days it’s three—the Commission got Apple, Nokia, Samsung and others to commit to “provide [charger] compatibility on the basis of the micro-USB connector,” the predecessor to USB-C. Most of the industry complied by putting micro-USB ports in their phones, but Apple exploited a loophole in the agreement by only providing an adapter so micro-USB chargers could connect to its proprietary ports. Naturally, it charged extra for the adapter.

The memorandum of understanding between the Commission and the manufacturers expired in 2012, after which some of the companies—Apple included—signed “letters of intent” that said they would keep sticking to the MoU’s terms. Micro-USB gradually gave way to the faster, easier-to-insert USB-C, which was introduced in 2014. But Apple still didn’t drop its proprietary chargers and in 2018, under pressure from members of the European Parliament, Vestager announced an impact assessment into the costs and benefits of moving beyond the voluntary approach to the problem.

Three impact assessments later, the Commission has now finally proposed a law to fix the issue.

The push is partly environmental in nature; the Commission said Thursday that its proposal would cut nearly a thousand tons of electronic waste each year. That’s because it would “unbundle” the sale of chargers from that of the mobile devices themselves—this is actually one area where Apple is ahead of the game, as it stopped including chargers with new iPhones last year.

“With our proposal, European consumers will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics—an important step to increase convenience and reduce waste,” said Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, on Thursday.

If the Commission’s proposal passes through the legislative process, it would have an implementation period of two years, meaning the new rules would likely come into effect in 2024. Apple claims this is too short.

“Apple stands for innovation and deeply cares about the customer experience,” it said in a statement. “We remain concerned that strict regulation mandating just one type of connector stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, which in turn will harm consumers in Europe and around the world.”

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