The European Commission (EC) spent more than a decade rallying smartphone manufacturers to install a common charging port in their devices, but its patience has waned, with the institution deeming it necessary to put forward more stringent rules.
But are the measures needed and what effects will they have?
Before we go into that, let’s look back at the landscape in 2009 where harmonisation was needed. The European Parliament stated there were 30 different ports compared with three today: micro-USB, USB-C and Apple’s Lightning connector.
At the time, many of the world’s biggest mobile phone vendors including Nokia, Motorola, and Apple agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding to provide micro-USB chargers.
However, Apple took advantage of a loophole by creating and selling micro-USB adapters, pressing on to upgrade its 30-pin dock connector to the Lightning connector seen on the iPhone 5 and devices thereafter.
Attempts to get manufacturers to comply voluntarily (an approach to not hinder innovation) to a universal charging system had been effective in reducing the amount of charging solutions, Maros Sefcovic, VP of Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight at the EC, noted in a statement to the Parliament in January when outlining the latest resolution to push for new common charger rules.
But, he argued binding measures are now needed as electronic waste and consumer convenience targets had not been achieved by voluntary measures, albeit without specifically naming Apple.
In a statement following Sefcovic’s address, MEPs outlined their demand for the Commission to adopt binding regulatory rules or table a legislative measure to introduce a standard for a common charger by July.
Central to the reason why the EC is pushing for a common charger is the goal to cut electronic waste. European Union figures show member states produced 12.3 million metric tonnes of such waste in 2016, equivalent to 16.6kg per person.
Alongside a common charger, members of the European Parliament demanded vendors stop including chargers with devices to cut waste, enabling consumers to use existing kit when they buy a new device. MEPs noted this could also “avoid potentially higher prices”.
The resolution was passed by a majority of 582 votes to 40.
In an interview with Mobile World Live, IDC Research Manager for European mobile devices Marta Pinto, said: “The new regulation hits Apple, but is not openly defying the brand: the idea behind the harmonisation of power ports was to make life easier to consumers, not to hit any brand in particular.”
Shortly after Sefcovic’s address to the parliament, Apple told BBC News, it had shipped 1 billion devices and 500,000 accessories compatible with its Lighting port and cable, which would be made redundant and end up in landfills.
Pinto said: “In the early days of implementation, electronic waste will probably grow as some consumers will have to either change their cables or buy new adapters if they buy new devices. It will take some time for this measure to have a real impact on [the] environment, as replacement rates are slowing down and consumers do not upgrade their devices that often.”
Marina Koytcheva, VP Forecasting at CCS Insight, said “selling fewer cables is just one small step that the industry will have to take on the long road to environmental sustainability”.
She added EU citizens “are drowning in cables” and the measure would save on waste through smaller packaging, yield transportation savings, and “reduce the prices consumer pay for phones”. She noted, though, savings would be more significant to consumers buying lower-end devices.
Pinto disagreed, stating the price of mobile devices is not high because of plastic cables in boxes, arguing instead complex internal components requiring “heavy R&D weigh on the device price”.
CCS Insight Chief of Research Ben Wood said it is difficult to see whether the resolution would stifle smartphone innovation. But added any vendor “would undoubtedly be able to innovate more quickly using a proprietary port/connector”.
He also noted Apple would be affected most by fresh regulations if forced to adopt USB-C for iPhones, however it “is big enough to be able to heavily influence USB-C standards”.
Pinto said the resolution would stifle innovation in the cable sector, but “spark innovation in all other power-related sectors: wireless power pads, furniture, any support method”. It potentially could accelerate “wireless power solutions, making cables redundant”.
However, she warned “discussions around a common wireless charging standard must follow as soon as brands rollout their own solutions to bypass the need of complying with a single-cable legislation”.
Time will tell
The EC seems determined to push through this legislation, which could leave Apple in a tricky position if it sticks to its traditional September iPhone update schedule, in what is one of its most lucrative global markets.
Whichever way the matter of universal charging goes, one can hope it’s the consumers which are the real winners in the end.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.