The Charging Game

The Charging Game

The European Union has agreed to make USB-C the single charging solution. While consumers are relieved, not all manufacturers are happy – especially Apple!

On June 7 this year, 27 member nations of the European Union (EU) unanimously agreed to formalize a legislation on a uniform charging port for electronic devices. It will now be mandatory for all mobile phones and handheld electronic devices in the EU to carry a USB-C charging port. It is still a provisional agreement on a “single charging solution” for all such products sold in the EU, and to turn it into a law the EU Parliament and Council will have to approve it. But that is only a formality now and is supposed to be sealed later this year.

Manufacturers will have to implement this by autumn 2024. Cell phones, tablets, digital cameras, video game consoles, headphones, portable speakers, e-readers, portable navigation systems, keyboards, computer mice, and earbuds will all have to comply by that date. In short, every device that is chargeable via a wired cable! All of them must be equipped with a USB Type-C port, regardless of the manufacturer. As of now, the only temporary relaxation is for laptops – which will have to implement the universal charging port by 2026. Complete exemptions would apply only for devices that are too small to have a USB Type-C port – for example, smart watches, health trackers, and certain electronic sports gadgets.

This new rule amends the extant Radio Equipment Directive. Although it compels manufacturers to adopt the USB-C as the common charging port for wired charging, this will obviously not apply to wireless chargers or devices that only support wireless charging.

Untangling the mess

Bundles of different chargers in drawers, and frantic rummaging to find the right one in the moment of need – have been the curse of the electronic age. As per EU statistics, an average consumer owns around three mobile chargers but regularly uses any two of them. And nearly 38% of them face charging issues due to variations in ports and device incompatibility. This universal vexation was aptly voiced in the press statement by Alex AgiusSaliba – the European Parliament’s rapporteur: “European consumers were frustrated long with multiple chargers piling up with every new device. Now they will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics.”

However, this is not only about consumer frustration. The EU hopes a universal charger will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and prevent waste. Huge economic implications are also being calculated, as eliminating the costs of buying multiple chargers for different devices could allow EUconsumers a total annual savings of around 250 million euros. In addition, the EU Commission for Internal Market estimated that unused or disposed chargers contribute to roughly 11,000 tons of electronic waste each year. The end goal is to reduce environmental waste, ensure consumer convenience and avoid “lock-in” effects caused by proprietary charging solutions.

The directive also proposes that chargers be “unbundled” from the devices being sold, so as to limit the number of unwanted and unused chargers. As per the proposed legislation, manufacturers must clearly label packages regarding charging options, as well as whether the product includes a charger. This would enable consumers to make informed choices – especially those who own different devices but do not need additional chargers. On the technology front, charging speed should also be harmonized for devices that support fast charging, so that any compatible charger can charge all devices at the same speed.

A longstanding issue

The EU categorically asserts that the amended legislation is only part of a broader effort to address product sustainability and the reduction of e-waste. The EU statement says the new rule will encourage technological innovation: “As wireless charging technology becomes more prevalent, the European Commission will be empowered to develop so-called delegated acts, on the interoperability of charging solutions.”

Europe’s quest for a universal charger is not exactly new. Back in June 2009, several major mobile phone manufacturers signed an EC-sponsored memorandum of understanding (MoU) to make new data-enabled mobile phones marketed in the EU compatible with a common external power supply (EPS). Although compliance was voluntary, most manufacturers agreed to make their products compatible with Europe’s common external power supply specification “to allow for full compatibility and safety of chargers and mobile phones.”The Common EPS standard was published in December 2010 as EN 62684:2010.

The original Common EPS MoU expired at the end of 2012 but was extended in phases till 2014. In 2021, based on two impact assessments and one technology analysis, the EC proposed a standardization for USB-C chargers to increase device interoperability, compatibility, convergence, and convenience for consumers while decreasing material extraction, redundancy, and e-waste. This was the initiative that has finally resulted in the new rules.

What would Apple do?

While consumers worldwide may rejoice at the news of one common charger, what are manufacturers thinking of? Well, for one thing, most Android device manufacturers have already shifted to USB-C charging. None of them is really complaining as this was more-or-less an expected development – apparent from the short historical background above.

However, the one company that is going to be hugely impacted is Apple. Currently, Apple is the only major smartphone manufacturer to still use a proprietary port instead of USB-C. Obviously, Apple’s market is huge – it sold 241 million iPhones globally in 2021, of which nearly 56 million were in Europe. Apple’s iPhones, iPods, and AirPods use a unique “Lightning” connector. The new rules will force Apple to introduce USB-C ports on all its devices. However, USB-C ports were introduced in Apple’s 12 MacBook in 2015, in iPad Pro in 2018, and in all other iPads since 2020. But the ubiquitous iPhone still remains the one major exclusion.

Reportedly, Apple was one of the companies that originally worked on the USB-C standard. Frustrated with the delay in progress, Apple opted for its own connector. It came up with its proprietary Lightning connector in 2012, two years before the USB-C standard was finalized. The Lightning connector offered several advantages over Apple’s old 30-pin dock connector and could be used both ways – just like USB-C. It was also slimmer and more durable than the previous connector – and had several features similar to USB-C.

Apple argues that switching from Lightning to USB-C will produce more e-waste since over a billion iPhones already use the old cable. However, experts anticipate that Apple would keep adding USB-C to more devices, and that means eventually an USB-C charging iPhone – thus turning the debate into a non-issue.

Some reports also predict Apple working on a totally portless iPhone – to be charged wirelessly only. If this is rolled out by 2024, Apple can entirely skirt the USB-C regulation. But that still remains unconfirmed.

Back in September 2021, Apple had issued a statement that expressed some apprehension: “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.”

The industry is watching with interest which route Apple takes.

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