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

This week, EU lawmakers agreed on new proposals to force manufacturers of everything from smartphones and headphones to digital cameras and tablets to use the same universal charging port: USB Type-C. The plan is for the new rules to take effect in the autumn of 2024, after which these devices that charge with a wired cable must do so via a built-in USB-C port.

The biggest single effect of this legislation is likely to land 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 has steadfastly stuck to Lightning, the proprietary connector they introduced with the iPhone 5 way back in 2012. EU law may finally force it to move on .

EU rules are currently only a preliminary agreement and must be approved by both the European Council and the European Parliament before they become official. It is expected to take place after the summer holidays, which end on 1 September. It enters into force 20 days later, and most manufacturers will then have 24 months to comply, which is where the autumn 2024 compliance date comes from. The exception is laptops because the type of high-power USB-C chargers these devices require are less common than phone chargers. They will instead have 40 months, which brings us to about the beginning of 2026.

If Apple wants the iPhone to have a physical charging port after the fall of 2024, the EU wants USB-C to be the only option. It can not only offer an external dongle as it did a decade ago. The latest public drafts of the proposed legislation specify that the USB Type-C connector used for charging must remain “available and operational at all times”, which means that a detachable dongle will hardly cut it. This is because EU rules are designed to reduce e-waste, with a universal charging standard that will hopefully mean that more chargers can be reused instead of ending up in landfills. The EU estimates that the rules could cut 11,000 tonnes (over 12,000 tonnes) of e-waste annually and save customers 250 million euros (around 268 million dollars) on “unnecessary charger purchases”.

New flagship iPhones tend to be announced in September each year, which means that Apple’s 2024 iPhone series (likely to be called the iPhone 16) will be launched just when the legislation comes into force. But the rules dictate that “there should be no products on the market that do not comply with the directive,” said Desislava Dimitrova, a spokeswoman for the European Parliament. This means that Apple may want to make the changes sooner, as they will have to change or withdraw older models from the market. Apple usually continues to sell older models for several years at a lower price.

There are already reports that the iPhone manufacturer may make the change next year. Last month, renowned Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported that Apple may be ready to switch as early as 2023. Days later Bloombergs Mark Gurman confirmed this report and said that Apple has already tested iPhones equipped with the connector. If they are accurate, these reports suggest that we may see an iPhone equipped with a USB-C port a year before the new EU rules come into force.

Of course, the EU cannot force Apple to make the change worldwide. But all iPhones sold in the EU’s internal market must follow these rules. During the financial year 2021, almost a quarter of Apple’s net sales came from Europe, and the iPhone was the best-selling product worldwide. The market is simply too lucrative for Apple to abandon legislation like this. Apple can make USB-C iPhones and ship them exclusively to the EU, but given Apple’s emphasis on supply chain efficiency that makes them sell a narrow range of very similar devices around the world (with only a few special models as an exception), that approach seems unlikely. .

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

There is at least one way Apple can avoid having to send USB-C ports on its phones, and that is thanks to wireless charging. The current EU legislation is only concerned with wired charging, so if If a telephone were to be charged wirelessly only, it could avoid EU charging harmonization rules altogether.

There is a theoretical distinction given that portless phones do not really exist outside of a couple of concept phones and advertising stunts. But it is important given the rumors that Apple has considered going that route with the iPhone. These rumors have been swirling ever since Apple introduced the MagSafe wireless charging standard with the iPhone 12 line. However, these rumors have disappeared lately, and a decision to stick to wired charging may explain why Apple seems relatively uninterested in developing an ecosystem of MagSafe accessories.

Apple has resisted the EU’s attempt to standardize around USB-C. In feedback sent to the European Commission last year, the company claimed that the regulation could slow down “the introduction of beneficial innovations 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 cables and accessories.” It has a point. With an estimated 1 billion iPhones in use around the world as of the beginning of 2021, there is one a lot of charging hardware that will become redundant over time. And all of these customers will need new USB-C accessories to replace them.

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

As my former colleague Chaim Gartenberg wrote last year, Apple’s concerns may have as much to do with Apple’s bottom line as with e-waste or innovation. Since Lightning is a proprietary connector, any accessory maker wishing to support it must go through Apple’s MFi program, which gives Apple a cut in the lucrative iPhone accessories market.

The irony is that despite opposition to putting a USB-C port on phones, Apple has been one of USB-C’s biggest masters across other device categories. On the portable side of the business, the company began going all-in on USB-C in 2015 when it released a MacBook with just a single USB-C port along with a headphone jack. If anything, Apple embraced USB-C too quickly, forcing the much-maligned “dongle life” on users around the world. Apple has also brought USB-C to a growing number of its iPads, such as the iPad Pro and, more recently, the iPad Air.

(As a side note: although devices covered by EU rules must be able to be charged via USB-C, they do not have to use this as their just form of charging. This means that MacBooks that charge via MagSafe – the portable version – are still free to do so, as long as the USB-C ports can also charge them. And that’s already the case with Apple’s latest MacBooks.)

If the legislation enters into force in its current form, it will not only be the iPhone that Apple will have to switch from Lightning to USB-C in the EU. According to a press release from the European Council, headphones, earplugs, wireless mice and wireless keyboards will all be required to use USB-C for wired charging. It will cover AirPods Max, AirPods, Magic Mouse and Magic Keyboard, all of which currently use Lightning.

In addition to asking smartphone makers to use the physical USB-C port, the EU also intends to standardize fast charging across phones, with Apple starting to lag behind its Android-based competitors. iPhone 13 Pro Max reported charges of less than 30W, while Samsung’s USB PD-compatible Galaxy S22 devices can expand to 45W. The EU hopes to standardize wireless charging in the future as well.

The EU’s new legislation is still far from being enacted into law. It must be completed at the technical level and voted on by both the European Parliament and the European Council. But between it and the Digital Markets Act, whose provisions include requiring iMessage to collaborate with other smaller messaging platforms, and Apple to allow 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 ball if it wants to continue to benefit from one of its biggest markets.