What the new EU USB-C rules mean for the iPhone

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What the new EU USB-C rules mean for the iPhone

This week, European Union lawmakers agreed on new proposals to force makers of everything from smartphones and headphones to digital cameras and tablets to use the same universal charging port: USB Type-C. The new rules are set to come into effect by fall 2024, after which those devices that charge via a cable must do so via an integrated USB-C port.

The biggest single impact of this legislation will likely end up on Apple’s iPhone. While the rest of the smartphone industry has gradually converged around USB-C as a single, standardized wired charging port, Apple is standing firm on Lightning, the proprietary port it introduced back in 2012 with the iPhone 5. EU legislation could finally force it to continue.

The EU rules are only a preliminary agreement for the time being and will have to be approved by both the European Council and the European Parliament before they become official. This is expected to happen after the summer break, which ends on September 1st. It goes into effect 20 days after, and most manufacturers then have 24 months to comply, resulting in a fall 2024 compliance date. The exception is laptops, as the type of high-wattage USB-C chargers these devices require are less common than phone chargers. They have 40 months instead, which puts us roughly in early 2026.

If Apple wants the iPhone to have a physical charging port after fall 2024, then the EU wants USB-C to be the only option. It can’t simply offer an external dongle like it did a decade ago. Recent public drafts of the proposed legislation specify that the USB Type-C port used for charging must remain “accessible and operational at all times,” meaning a removable dongle is unlikely to cut it. That’s because the EU rules are designed to do that to reduce E-waste, with a universal charging standard that will hopefully mean more chargers can be reused instead of ending up in landfills. The EU estimates the rules could save 11,000 tonnes (over 12,000 tonnes) of e-waste annually and save customers €250 million (around US$268 million) on “unnecessary charger purchases”.

New flagship iPhones are typically announced in September each year, meaning Apple’s 2024 iPhone range (likely to be called the iPhone 16) will launch right when the legislation comes into force. But the rules dictate that “there should be no products on the market that don’t comply with the directive,” says Desislava Dimitrova, a spokeswoman for the European Parliament. That means Apple might want to make the changes sooner, as older models would need to be modified or phased out. Apple typically sells older models at a lower price for several years.

There are already reports that the iPhone maker could make the switch next year. Last month, renowned Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported that Apple could be ready to make the switch as early as 2023. days later Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman confirmed this report and said Apple is already testing iPhones equipped with the connector. If true, these reports suggest that we could see an iPhone with a USB-C port a year before new EU regulations come into effect.

Of course, the EU cannot force Apple to make the switch worldwide. But all iPhones sold in the European Union’s internal market would have to abide by these rules. During fiscal 2021, almost a quarter of Apple’s net sales came from Europe, and the iPhone was the world’s best-selling product. The market is simply too lucrative for Apple to abandon such legislation. Apple could make USB-C iPhones and ship them exclusively to the EU, but given Apple’s emphasis on supply chain efficiency, which means it sells a narrow selection of very similar devices around the world (with only a few special models as an exception), the approach seems unlikely.

A spokesman for Apple declined to answer questions about how the company intends to comply with the upcoming legislation.

There’s at least one way Apple could avoid shipping USB-C ports on its phones, and that’s thanks to wireless charging. So the current EU legislation only deals with wired charging if If a phone only charged wirelessly, it could completely circumvent EU charging harmonization rules.

It’s a theoretical distinction, as portless phones don’t really exist outside of the realms of some concept phones and publicity stunts. But it’s significant given the rumors that Apple was considering going down that route with the iPhone. These rumors have been swirling ever since Apple introduced the MagSafe wireless charging standard with the iPhone 12 range. Those rumors have faded recently, however, and a decision to stick with wired charging might explain why Apple seems relatively uninterested in building an ecosystem of MagSafe accessories.

Apple has resisted EU attempts to standardize USB-C. In feedback to the European Commission last year, the company argued that the regulation “could slow down the uptake of useful innovation in charging standards, including those related to safety and energy efficiency.” It also said the new rules could increase e-waste in the short term “by triggering the disposal of existing cords and accessories.” It makes sense. With an estimated 1 billion iPhones in use worldwide as of early 2021, that’s a a lot of of charging hardware that will become obsolete over time. And all of those customers will need new USB-C accessories to replace them.

iPhone 5 test images

Apple’s iPhone 5 (pictured) was the first device with a Lightning connector.
Image: The Edge

As my former colleague Chaim Gartenberg wrote last year, Apple’s concerns may have as much to do with Apple’s bottom line as they do with e-waste or innovation. Because Lightning is a proprietary connector, any accessory maker wanting to support it must go through Apple’s MFi program, which allows Apple to get a share of the lucrative iPhone accessory market.

The irony is that despite its opposition to a USB-C port in its phones, Apple has been one of the biggest proponents of USB-C in other device categories. On the laptop side of its business, the company started going all-in on USB-C in 2015 when it released a MacBook with just a single USB-C port alongside a headphone jack. If anything, Apple has embraced USB-C too quickly, forcing the much-mocked “dongle life” on users around the world. Apple has also introduced USB-C to an increasing number of its iPads, such as the iPad Pro and more recently the iPad Air.

(As an aside, while devices that fall under EU regulations must be able to charge via USB-C, they don’t have to use this as their own only form of charging. This means that MacBooks that charge via MagSafe – the laptop version – can continue to do so as long as their USB-C ports can charge them too. And that’s already the case with Apple’s latest MacBooks.)

If the law comes into force in its current form, Apple in the EU will not only have to switch the iPhone from Lightning to USB-C. All headphones, earbuds, wireless mice and wireless keyboards would have to use USB-C for wired charging, according to a press release from the European Council. That would cover the AirPods Max, AirPods, Magic Mouse, and Magic Keyboard, all of which currently use Lightning.

As well as urging smartphone makers to use the physical USB-C connector, the EU intends to standardize fast charging across all phones, where Apple is slowly lagging behind its Android-based competitors. The iPhone 13 Pro Max reported charges under 30W, while Samsung’s USB-PD compatible Galaxy S22 devices can stretch up to 45W. The EU also wants to standardize wireless charging in the future.

The new EU legislation is still a long way from coming into force. It has to be finalized on a technical level and agreed by both the European Parliament and the European Council. But between him and the Digital Markets Act, whose provisions include requiring iMessage to interact with other smaller messaging platforms and Apple allowing third-party app stores on the iPhone, the organization is forcing major changes at Apple. And the iPhone maker will have little choice but to play along if it wants to continue capitalizing on one of its biggest markets.

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