In Apple v. Android, EU picks a side
European Commission proposal aims at Lightning connector for iPhones, makes USB-C the standard
In a stunning and far-reaching development, the European Commission – the executive arm of the European Union – has proposed a common charger for electronic devices – the lack of which bedevils smartphone owners looking for an easy way to power up.
At a news conference announcing the proposed new legislation, the European Commissioner for Internal Markets talked not only about the technical aspects of the proposal but also how consumer friendly it would be, how much energy it would save, how much money it would save and the massive reduction in e-waste it would result in.
It would even help in the battle against climate change, he said.
But, academics were quick to point out that Apple is clearly the target of the proposal. Its proprietary Lightning connector makes all the other chargers in the world useless. They don't work on iPhones.
If history is any guide, when the EU Parliament eventually approves the proposed law, it could have a global impact far beyond the borders of the Union.
At his press conference Sept. 23, Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Internal Market started with an almost folksy homily.
“The commission has been involved in this particular file for over 10 years,” he said. “We've been arguing for a common charger for all that time.
“In French, we call it a sea snake, basically a story that never dies. And my job is to try and kill off these sea snakes whenever I can.”
In the past decade, he said, there has been progress. “In 2009, the commission was able to make sure that we moved from 30 different charging models to just three – that was a lot of progress.
“We've [now] decided to go for a legislative approach for this last stage, to kill off this sea snake, as I call it, once and for all.”
According to Breton, the proposal embodies three main goals: more freedom, fewer costs, and greater ease of use.
“We're suggesting that each electronic appliance be able to use the most widespread technology which basically means, a USB-C type port,” he announced.
“We all know that different members of the family have different mobile phones and the idea now is that everybody be able to use the same charger in order to charge their appliances.”
In addition, the Commission wants to make it possible for people to buy a mobile phone without the charger. Currently all phones – both Apple and Android — come with a charger. You may already have one, or two or five in a closet, but you still get a new one when you buy a new phone. What a waste!
Talking about waste, the Commission said disposal of used chargers is estimated to pile up 11,000 tonnes of e-waste every year. In addition, consumers spend about €2.4 billion annually on standalone chargers that do not come with electronic devices.
By unbundling the sale of a charger from the sale of the electronic device, consumers will be able to purchase a new device without a new charger. This will limit the number of unwanted chargers purchased or left unused.
So it would not only be good for your wallet, but also the environment and even good for the warming planet.
Does this sound like a win-win situation to you? Well, not if you're Apple’s President Tim Cook.
In a story published on Oct. 1, Popular Science magazine put it this way: The EU wants everyone to use USB-C chargers—including Apple
A proposal from the European Commission could have a big effect on Apple's phones, which rely on a Lightning connector for charging, PopSci reported.
The EC proposal that all devices sold in the EU come with a USB-C charger – a measure designed to fight electronic waste and make life easier for consumers – will likely affect Apple (which still uses its proprietary Lightning charging cable) the most.
“My guess is that [the EU] is going to be able to successfully implement this,” says Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, “despite the fact there’s certainly going to be a lot of pushback from electronics companies.”
While Apple still uses a Lightning cable, most Android phone makerss have replaced their Micro-USB chargers with a USB-C option. While some iPad models do use a USB-C, as do some MacBooks, no iPhones do.
“Apple is pretty clearly the target here,” says Perzanowski. “This regulation would require Apple to very quickly change the design of whatever iPhone is coming down the pipeline next.”
Apple has made its fortune by having a closed system, in which its devices are differentiated from all the others by their proprietary hardware and software. It is not likely to take this proposal for a common charger lightly’.
A huge lobbying battle can be expected.
In a Sept. 23 article EU plans to make common charger mandatory for Apple iPhones and other devices CNBC presented Apple’s non-response response to the announcement:
“A spokesperson for Apple said in response that the firm stands for ‘innovation and deeply cares about the customer experience.
‘We share the European Commission’s commitment to protecting the environment and are already carbon neutral for all of our corporate emissions worldwide,’ they said.
“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. We look forward to continued engagement with stakeholders to help find a solution that protects consumer interest, as well as the industry’s ability to innovate and bring exciting new technology to users.’ ”
In other words, Apple is gearing up for a fight.
In fairness, CNBC did note that Android phone makers like Samsung and Huawei have equipped some of their latest phones with USB-C ports, while many of their older handsets have micro-USB ports.
“Under the legislation, USB-C would also become the standard port for all smartphones, tablets (hello, iPad!), cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld video game consoles.”
If the European Union eventually adopts the common charger, its impact is likely it to be felt globally – just as its GDPR was five years ago.
In 2016, the EU adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), one of the most restrictive privacy laws in force at the time. Since then, the same or similar laws have been adopted by dozens of countries around the globe, including Brazil, Singapore and even in the post-Brexit UK: In a quirk of fate, while the GDPR may no longer apply in Britain, its requirements were adopted into the UK’s national legislation through the Data Protection Act (DPA) in 2018.
As far back as 2013, when the EU was first considering data privacy protections, we reported on it in:
“The European Union is way ahead of America in recognizing the right to privacy – and doing something about protecting it,” we wrote then.
The EU is again way ahead of the US; if it adopts the common charging standard, it's more than likely similar laws will be passed in many other countries. Even if the US does not follow suit, Apple will face an enormous dilemma: should it produce TWO versions of the iPhone – one for Europe, another for the rest of the world?
On Sept. 23 European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said in a statement: “European consumers were frustrated long enough about incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers. We gave industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions; now [the] 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.”
But it is most certainly not a win for Apple.
The proposal for a revised Radio Equipment Directive will now need to be adopted by the European Parliament and the European Council by ordinary legislative procedure (co-decision). A transition period of 24 months from the date of adoption will give industry ample time to adapt before the entry into application, the Commission said.
In 2020, about 420 million mobile phones and other portable electronic devices were sold in the EU. On average, consumers own around three mobile phone chargers, of which they use two on a regular basis.
Despite this, 38% of consumers report that at least once they could not charge their mobile phone because available chargers were incompatible.
According to statista.com more than 1.5 billion smart phones have already been sold this year worldwide. If a similar percentage of global consumers had problems with charging their devices as the 38% in the EU, the global total would be 570 million.
It is not difficult to see the potential savings from this EU proposal. Not only would it be more convenient, easier and smarter to have one charger fit all devices, but it would save money, it would reduce waste and be good for the planet.
What's not to like about it?