An EU vote to develop a standard smartphone charging cable standard totally did not go Apple's way this week, putting intense pressure on the smartphone giant to drop its proprietary lightning connector for iPhones and other iOS devices. It may be some time coming, but this could be the beginning of the end for the Lightning connector.
For years now, the European Union has been pushing electronics makers to adopt common standards around charging cables.
Most companies, keen to be able to sell phones to the millions of citizens of the EU tended to adopt that standardised approach, which is a big part of the reason that most phones tend to ship with USB-C chargers and ports these days, and microUSB before that.
There was always one exception to that rule, and it was Apple.
Apple has stood out as wanting to have its own standard, and only its own standard for years now.
Seriously, it's been quite a long time indeed; here's a story I wrote back in 2011 about how Apple was dancing around EU regulations by providing a microUSB-to-dock-connector plug in EU iPhones.
Apple never did get back to me about Australian availability, but then this was a time when Australians used to queue up until midnight to get hold of iPhones, too. It was a different time.
The gears of the EU grind very slowly, but overnight, as Apple Insider notes the EU voted in favour of the European Parliament resolution on a common charger for mobile radio equipment (2019/2983(RSP).
Overwhelmingly in favour, in fact.
582 votes in favour to just 40 against, and when you consider the diverse mix of EU representatives, that's quite the ringing endorsement of the idea.
So what does the EU want, exactly?
The EU wants more than the voluntary agreements in place between device manufacturers, because it feels those aren't working. The resolution notes that "…voluntary agreements between industry players, although significantly decreasing the number of charger types available on the market, have proved unsuccessful in terms of achieving a common charging solution, and consumers are still confronted with different types of chargers across the market"
They're not wrong, but again that's largely a judgement that hits at Apple specifically. Yes, you can still buy phones with microUSB charging rather than USB-C, but they're fast becoming the minority on the Android side of the fence.
Why does the EU care about mobile chargers, anyway?
It's partly a consumer protection measure, as outlined above, but also an environmental concern around the e-waste generated if consumers switch from one plug type to another. The resolution notes that "…around 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste is generated globally per year, with an average of more than 6 kg per person; ...total e-waste generation in Europe in 2016 was 12.3 million metric tonnes, equivalent to 16.6 kg on average per inhabitant… this represents an unnecessary environmental footprint that can be reduced…"
It also states, "consumer trends in the past 10 years show growing multi-device ownership and short lifecycles for some radio equipment, e.g. smartphones; ...older equipment is often replaced because it is seen as outdated; ... furthermore, these trends lead to the production of additional e-waste, including chargers."
(Quotes slightly edited to remove far, far too many mentions of the word "whereas")
Did Apple just ignore the EU with this vote?
Not at all. Apple's argument to the EU, presented last week was that mandating a common standard would "stifle innovation" and that by mandating a common charger it would add significant e-waste, according to Apple Insider.
That's because consumers with lightning compatible connectors wouldn't be able to use them successfully if Apple swapped to some other common connector.
When did Apple introduce Lightning connectors?
Wait... Apple hasn't actually innovated connectors for 8 years now?
It's not entirely fair to say that Apple has done nothing with Lightning for most of the decade.
The Lightning connector on the original model of the iPad Pro supports USB 3.0, for example which is faster than it was under USB 2.0.
It's also all but inevitable that it's much cheaper for Apple to build a Lightning connector (or ask Foxconn to do it for them) than it was back in 2012. Not that you see that reflected in the price of iPhones, mind you.
Still, it's not as though it's made significant changes to Lightning in that time, or given much of an indication that there's a new standard coming down the line.
But what about Apple and e-waste?
Well, maybe. To be fair to Apple, it does offer a wide range of e-waste recycling services for its older products, and reports regularly on its progress for environmental activities.
However, to put this in a connector context, Apple really didn't seem to care all that much about the exact same argument back in 2012 when it unceremoniously ditched the 30 pin dock connector in order to switch to the lightning connector.
Consumers just had to bear the cost and (hopefully) responsibly recycled their older gear as it broke down.
Doesn't Apple already make products with USB-C compatibility?
Yeah, but those aren't iOS devices…
This is true. But the iPad Pro is, and the current model is USB C only. OK, pedants, technically it's iPadOS now, but that's very clearly a fork in iOS, not an entirely and vastly different operating environment.
It's abundantly clear that USB-C and iOS can coexist in the Apple world, but it's Apple's choice not to do so for other iOS devices at this time.
So what happens next?
Good question. Remember when I said earlier that the EU's gears grind slowly? It's looking for movement on this by July 2020, which is practically sprinting by EU standards. But still, we'll have to wait and see.
Could Apple completely ignore the EU on this?
Yes, it could, but only if it wanted to drop every single EU country for sales purposes for those device.
Probably the UK as well, given that Brexit won't be anywhere near done by July. Apple kind of likes money, so that seems unlikely.
Could Apple just sell a USB-C iPhone in Europe only?
Look, it could, but realistically it won't.
I write that without sneaking into Tim Cook's emails in any way, because while it's well within Apple's technical capabilities to build slightly different iPhone models (it already does this for China-specific iPhone models with slightly different internal technical specifications) doing so for all of the EU would, at the very least, pull its worldwide warranty situation into total chaos.
One of the very nice things about buying Apple gear is that the warranty is worldwide. That means if your iPhone develops an issue that isn't your fault when you're travelling, whether you're in New York, London, Tokyo or Melbourne you can get it serviced. That's because the parts are effectively universal. Every iPhone of a given generation has the same screen technology, the same camera lenses, and the same lightning connector.
Introducing lightning and non-lightning connectors into the mix would seriously impact that. Apple could wear the cost and get all of its service agents to carry parts for both types, but it would be insanely expensive for the company, and it'd slow down repair times too. Consumers wouldn't want that either.
So Apple will just give up on Lightning, then?
Apple rarely gives up a fight it thinks it has any chance of winning, so expect Apple to keep swinging on this one.
That being said, it's also a remarkably pragmatic company, even if it doesn't always fully admit when it may have been on the wrong side.
Apple was adamant that a single size of iPhone screen was all consumers wanted, right up until it changed to delivering larger Plus sized phones. Consumers apparently didn't need wireless charging, right up until apparently they did. Then there were dual cameras... I think you get the picture there.
That July time-frame makes it less likely that Apple would have shifted away from Lightning for the 2020 crop of iPhones, and it seems unlikely that it would have argued so strongly against it if USB-C was on its 2020 calendar anyway. Those rumoured "cheap" 2020 iPhones are almost certainly rocking Lightning connectors at their base.
Still, it wouldn’t entirely be a shock if in 2021, Tim Cook takes to the stage in the Steve Jobs Theatre in Cupertino to announce how Apple now has a "magical" new connector that just so happens to have the shape, connection profile and branding of USB-C on it. [Apple Insider]