EU’s USB-C proposal thrusts Apple into international regulatory showdown

The news: The European Commission took its strongest action yet to pressure electronics makers into standardizing USB-C charging ports with a new proposal directly attacking Apple’s iPhone fleet.

  • The new rules (which are expected to pass an EU parliamentary vote) would apply to a wide assortment of electronic devices and would give manufacturers 24 months to comply. It would also force manufacturers to make fast charging interpolable and let consumers buy devices unbundled from a charger.
  • Supporters argue USB-C standardization will be a boon for consumer convenience and could significantly reduce electronic waste by letting users reuse chargers for multiple devices.
  • Disposed and unused charging cables generate around 11,000 tonnes of waste per year on the continent, according to data compiled by the EU, with the average European owning about three mobile phone chargers.

How we got here: The European Commission attempted similar standardization efforts regarding micro-USB in 2014 and 2018, but those efforts failed in part due to design issues that caused the chargers to break prematurely.

  • USB-C solves many of the problems that plagued previous chargers and has already seen rapid adoption among device-makers. Sixty-eight percent of new smartphones released by Huawei, LG, Samsung, and Xiaomi used USB-C in 2019, up from 45% a year prior, according to data compiled by the Digital Europe and Mobile & Wireless Forum.

The problem: The new rules all but name Apple’s iPhone as their primary target due to the company’s stubborn unwillingness to transition away from its proprietary Lightning cable.

  • Apple rebuffed the proposals, saying the standard would stifle innovation. The rules could also cut into the sizable accessories ecosystem Apple regulates under its Made for iPhone (MiFi) program.
  • Apple also claimed that efforts to box out its Lightning cable would itself cause “an unprecedented volume of electronic waste.”

The opportunity: Though Apple would likely have no choice but to adopt USB-C if the proposal passes, there’s also a possibility it could buck the trend altogether and ship new iPhones without any charging port, relying instead on wireless charging.

  • This move would echo Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from its phones, but unlike wireless headphones, wireless charging tech still leaves much to be desired.

The takeaway: If the EU’s proposal passes, it will likely force Apple to switch to standardize USB-C for all iPhones, even those sold outside the EU, underscoring the power regulators in one region have to affect corporations’ decisions internationally.