The Common Charger Conundrum

Ryan Heshmati

October 21, 2022

Fast Facts:

The European Parliament voted in favor of a proposal on October 4, 2022, that requires companies to make their phones and tablets common charger compatible by 2024. Aiming at technology giant Apple, EU policymakers are demanding they end the lightning connector charging system with the replacement of USB-C. Apple’s vocal opposition to such an idea dates back to 2021, and the policy’s impact depends on their next steps. The proposal may constrict Apple’s designs, finances, and control over their device ecosystem and is criticized as an overreach of the European Parliament.

The lightning connector was introduced by Apple in 2012, replacing its old 30-pin charger with a sleek, thin innovation. As the owner of the connector design, Apple has complete control over sales of iPhone and iPad charging cables, so even if a third-party charging cable is purchased, Apple still profits from allowing the third party to use its lightning design. Port removal for headphones from iPhones several years ago marked increased reliance on the lightning port, as wired Apple headphone products must have lightning connectors, too. 

Those who support the USB-C charger as the common standard assert it is the logical move. By limiting the charger types, households will need to make fewer purchases. In a press release, Parliament says consumers may save up to a quarter of a billion euros on purchases of chargers annually. The savings are not only monetary, however. The press release also says that the common charger standard will help tackle e-waste. It asserts that the policy will curb the estimated 11,000 tons of annual electronic waste that results from “disposed of and unused chargers.” 

Many disapprove of the decision, though. Should this bill go into effect as planned in 2024, it will hinder autonomy over designs at Apple. Questions also arise over regulators’ responsibilities to consumers weighing against the rights of corporations to make decisions on their products. The transition between connectors may not be as easy as it sounds. The USB-C connector is significantly thicker than the lightning connector, putting pressure on designers to make everything fit, which could force compromises that ultimately harm consumers rather than help them as the policy intends. Another concern is losses in lightning connector revenue for Apple. Currently, as aforementioned, not only does Apple profit off the sale of Apple-branded chargers but also on the sale of third-party ones. Apple will no longer have a claim to license connectors to other sellers, as they do not own USB-C.

While EU policymakers hold they are putting consumers first, unintended consequences might prevail.