EU regulators are planning to investigate if there’s a need for a legal mandate to force phone manufacturers to use standard chargers. Should they do so, proprietary chargers—including Apple’s non-standard Lightning connector on its phones—could wind up being prohibited.
For the better part of a decade, the EU has been pushing phone manufacturers to standardize the chargers they use in an effort to cut the amount of electronic waste they generate. Phones typically come with a charger, and customers often toss the old charger when they buy a new phone. Ideally, old chargers are recycled, but they often find their way into a landfill, with the EU claiming that some 51,000 tons of waste are generated each year. The EU’s long-term goal is that phones and chargers should ultimately be bought separately, with one charger being retained across multiple phone generations.
In 2009, manufacturers including Apple, Samsung, and Nokia, signed a memorandum of understanding to say they would voluntarily standardize on the then-current micro-USB connector. For most hardware, this meant that the phone itself sported a USB connector, often with a USB Type-A connector on the charger brick itself. For Apple, it meant production of a micro-USB-to-Dock connector, as the company wanted to retain its proprietary ports.
Nowadays, most phones coming to market use USB Type-C connectors. Apple, however, remains an exception, preferring instead its proprietary Lightning connector to the industry standard.
However, regulators are unsatisfied with this voluntary approach. In response to a query about phone chargers, EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager said, “Given the unsatisfactory progress with this voluntary approach, the Commission will shortly launch an impact assessment study to evaluate costs and benefits of different other options.” The study will examine the current situation and look at ways in which problems could be addressed.
A move to mandate USB Type-C would make little difference to most smartphone companies, but it would present something of a headache for Apple. Using the standard connector for the iPhone would likely prove popular among consumers—especially as Type-C is starting to become more common on laptops, too, meaning that one charger and cable could be used to charge both a phone and a computer—but it would deprive Cupertino of the royalties it currently collects for its non-standard tech.