On 23 September, the European Commission put forward a proposal that would make the adoption of USB-C charging on electronics like smartphones mandatory and while plenty of manufacturers already offer up phones with Type-C charging by default, Apple's iPhone would be the most prominent outlier affected; at least, that's how it seems at first.
Trends, industry predictions and rumours, however, suggest that Apple might be preparing to simply bunnyhop the implications of this proposal altogether.
The e-waste argument
This latest revision of the EC's 'Radio Equipment Directive' is just one in the long line of measures instigated amongst EU nations to tackle e-waste; establishing the first "voluntary agreement" (signed by the likes of Apple, Huawei, Nokia and Samsung) as far back as 2009; which focused on reducing the number of existing mobile charging standards from 30 down to three.
According to the European Commission's research, "disposed of and unused chargers are estimated to pile up to 11,000 tonnes of e-waste every year," while at the same time, in 2020 some 38% of consumers reported being unable to charge their phone because available chargers were incompatible, all the while spending approximately €2.4 billion (£2.1B/US$2.8B) annually on standalone chargers, in order to address the issue.
With the average person reportedly already owning three chargers (and using two of them regularly), it's easy to see why – from an e-waste perspective – the EC is pushing phone makers to unite under one charging standard.
Practically every predominant player in the smartphone space right now sells a range of handsets that almost universally sport USB-C charging as standard, with the iPhone's Lightning connector being the obvious exception.
A 2019 Commission impact assessment study stated that, in 2018, 29% of phone chargers sold in the EU were USB Type-C, while 21% used Lightning. The proportions have undoubtedly shifted since then (likely in USB-C and Lightning's favour) – as microUSB has waned in popularity – but with Lightning already accounting for over a fifth of the chargers sold within the EU just three years ago and the standard having been in circulation since 2012, changing to USB-C would represent a huge shift, not just for Apple itself but for accessory makers and consumers across the globe.
Despite having already embraced USB-C on the MacBook and, more significantly, the once-exclusively Lightning-laden iPad range, the company has shown no signs of bringing the now widely-supported port to the iPhone, and there are obvious reasons – both on and off the record – as to why Apple hasn't budged.
The company line suggests that with such an established ecosystem of Lightning-based products already in play, such a move would actually generate more e-waste, as the past decade's worth of first and third-party accessories acquired by long-time iPhone owners would be rendered obsolete.
In a previous response to the European Commission on the matter, Apple stated, “(this) legislation would have a direct negative impact by disrupting the hundreds of millions of active devices and accessories used by our European customers and even more Apple customers worldwide, creating an unprecedented volume of electronic waste and greatly inconveniencing users.”
Apple maintaining control
There's also the financial implications of such a change, not with regards to tooling and buying new components for future iPhones but concerning the revenue that the Lightning standard currently generates through Apple's MFi program.
The same board that controls Lightning to USB behaviour inside the iPhone is also the gatekeeper for MFi-approved products. From cables to accessories, if a third-party product wants to play nice when connected to an iPhone via Lightning, it has to be MFi-compliant and in order to gain that status, those third parties need to pay Apple a recurring license fee.
While Lightning's days may be numbered, it'll be Apple – not the EC – who decides when that change takes place and as strange as it may seem, a portless iPhone looks like a more logical and likely jump than moving to USB-C at this point, at least from Apple's perspective.
There's a reason that accessories that comply with the MagSafe for iPhone standard – introduced on 2020's the iPhone 12 family – feature a dedicated set of animations when being attached to a compatible iPhone. While compatibility is not yet enforced in the same way that the MFi program applies to Lightning accessories, Apple's Accessory Design Guidelines document lays out – in exhaustive detail – the technical standards and compliances that vendors need to meet in order for their wares to work with MagSafe for iPhone.
It's only a hop, skip and a jump from MagSafe for iPhone being a slick means of attaching wireless chargers and wallets (as it currently is), to it becoming the primary method by which the iPhone receives power and data directly, be it from first or third-party products.
In doing so, Apple would once again have the power to set out its own guidelines and apply license fees as it sees fit, all of which accessory makers would have to comply with in order to tap into the gargantuan iPhone market; something the Cupertino company completely loses out on by adopting USB-C – a standard defined by the USB Implementers Forum (within which Apple's Dave Conroy sits on the board of directors, coincidentally).
This isn't just speculation, either. Earlier this year, Apple Insider picked up a report by established Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, in which he touched on Apple's reluctance to relinquish Lightning, due to both the profit benefits of the MFi program and the enhanced water resistance standards it (and MagSafe for iPhone) meets, compared to USB-C.
"The market expects the iPhone to abandon Lightning in favor [sic] of USB-C and equip the power button with the Touch ID sensor," Kuo stated, back in May 2021. "Our latest survey indicates that there is no visibility on the current schedule for the iPhone to adopt these two new specifications."
"We believe that USB-C is detrimental to the MFi business's profitability, and its waterproof specification is lower than Lightning and MagSafe," he continued. "Therefore, if the iPhone abandons Lightning in the future, it may directly adopt the portless design with MagSafe support instead of using a USB-C port."
Kuo did also acknowledge the relative immaturity of the MagSafe for iPhone platform at this stage but there's plenty of potential in the technology for Apple to simply phase users directly from one proprietary standard to another while skipping over USB-C entirely, given that now MagSafe is now on the iPhone, it's only likely to grow in scope, ability and popularity.
Should the European Commission's proposal pass the vote in the European Parliament, manufacturers will have a time constraint of 24 months in which affected product lines would need to make the move to USB-C.
Based on Apple's vast resources and the fact that the new iPhone 13 family represents the second generation of handsets to support MagSafe for iPhone, there's little doubt in our minds that if it wants to push consumers to a portless iPhone, it could do so in plenty of time ahead of this EU-imposed deadline.