Note: this story has been rewritten because a previous version contained substantially incorrect analysis. Please see the correction note below. We regret the error.
Since 2009, the European Commission has been trying to convince tech companies to adopt a single charging method for our gadgets, primarily smartphones, in a quest to reduce the waste that comes when every new gadget you buy includes yet another AC adapter in the box. Now, Apple’s Lightning connector may be at risk.
Back at the beginning of the decade, the commission was mostly successful in driving the voluntary adoption of the Micro-USB charging port, which became the standard on every non-Apple smartphone until the newer, more capable USB-C came along. That reduced the number of different cables and chargers a household needed to top up their devices. But in the view of Maroš Šefčovič, a vice president of the European Commission who is now proposing further regulation, voluntary agreements haven’t been enough.
In a statement before the European Parliament on January 13th, Šefčovič argued that voluntary agreements from the industry weren’t doing enough. Apple, Google, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony all voluntarily agreed in 2018 to standardize on some form of USB-C charging by 2021, but allowed for things like Lightning to USB-C cables and adapters instead of changing the port on the phone itself.
Šefčovič mentions that one of the outcomes might be to eliminate proprietary connectors (like Apple’s Lightning port, though he didn’t mention it by name). And he suggests that the EU might force manufacturers to stop shipping chargers with each new phone, which could be frustrating unless manufacturers know their customers would already have the right charger and cable for whatever smartphone they buy waiting for them at home.
Apple’s not particularly happy about the threat of regulation, of course, and argues that we might not have shifted from Micro-USB to the more durable, versatile, and bidirectional Lightning and USB-C to begin with if they’d been forced to adopt a single standard back in 2009. Here’s the full statement the company issued Thursday, mirroring a very similar one Apple issued a year ago:
Apple stands for innovation and deeply cares about the customer experience. 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.
More than 1 billion Apple devices have shipped using a Lightning connector in addition to an entire ecosystem of accessory and device manufacturers who use Lightning to serve our collective customers. Legislation would have a direct negative impact by disrupting the hundreds of millions of active devices and accessories used by our European customers and even more Apple customers worldwide, creating an unprecedented volume of electronic waste and greatly inconveniencing users.
We do not believe there is a case for regulation given the industry is already moving to the use of USB Type-C through a connector or cable assembly. This includes Apple’s USB-C power adapter which is compatible with all iPhone and iPad devices. This approach is more affordable and convenient for consumers, enables charging for a wide range of portable electronic products, encourages people to re-use their charger and allows for innovation.
Prior to 2009, the Commission considered mandating that all smartphones use only USB Micro-B connectors which would have restricted the advancement to Lightning and USB Type-C. Instead, the Commission established a voluntary, industry standards-based approach that saw the market shift from 30 chargers down to 3, soon to be two — Lightning and USB-C, showing this approach does work.
We hope the Commission will continue to seek a solution that does not restrict the industry’s ability to innovate and bring exciting new technology to customers.
And it’s worth noting there are already a couple of studies that conclude forcing a single connector standard could harm consumers more than it helps, and otherwise might not achieve the EC’s aims — though you should know one of those studies was commissioned by Apple, and the other by an association of tech companies that includes Apple. Among other arguments, they suggest that charger incompatibility isn’t generally a problem for EU households, more than half of which have standardized on one kind of cable anyhow; that households would prefer a new charger to come in the box instead of none; and that USB-C both costs more to produce and has a 20 percent higher carbon footprint, “due to the USB Type-C connector being larger and having a higher mass than the Lightning connector.”
But the EC plans to publish its own dueling study in the upcoming weeks, which will presumably suggest differently.
Correction, January 24th at 10:20 PM ET: This story originally appeared with the headline “No, the EU isn’t asking Apple to kill the Lightning cable.” That analysis was incorrect; this story has been rewritten to reflect the fact that EU regulation on common charging is still developing. It has also been updated with a recent statement from Apple made in response to the EU’s efforts. We apologize for the error.