Universal Chargers May Not Solve Our Charging Woes

Experts say it's a nuanced issue

Key Takeaways

  • An EU lawmaker hopes all member states will soon approve the proposal for a universal charger for smartphones.
  • The proposal seeks to standardize on the USB-C port, adversely affecting Apple and the iPhone’s Lightning port.
  • Experts think a portless iPhone could help Apple wriggle out of the situation.
A group of several different types of charging cables.

graphit77 / Getty Images

Smartphones with a standardized charging port could perhaps create more problems than they'd solve, suggest experts.

Earlier in February, a European Union lawmaker told Reuters that he's confident a deal with member states on a common charging port for smartphones and other mobile gadgets could be finalized before the end of the year. Experts are conflicted about the merits of the move. 

"On the surface, the move to a standard charging port seems like a good one for consumers," Eric Brinkman, Chief Product Officer at Cobalt, told Lifewire over email. "However, like most things in tech, the nuances make this issue difficult." 

Power Play

Brinkman said he understands where the lawmakers are coming from as we all feel the pain of carrying around multiple cables just to ensure we have the right ones to charge our devices. 

The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, has long advocated switching to a single mobile charging port. A 2019 study by the EC found that half the chargers sold with mobile phones in 2018 had a USB micro-B connector, while 29% had a USB-C connector, and 21% were iPhones with Lightning connectors.

In 2021 it finally took concrete steps towards a universal charger by proposing draft legislation, expressing its dissatisfaction at the lack of progress on the front by the stakeholders.

"European consumers were frustrated long enough about incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers," Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission's executive vice-president, said in a press release. "We gave industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions. Now time is ripe for legislative action for a common charger."

Lawmaker Alex Agius Saliba, who is leading the issue at the European Parliament, told Reuters he hopes the legislative assembly will vote on his proposal in May 2022, allowing him to then start talks with EU countries on a final draft. 

Apples to Oranges

The proposal, if adopted, will make it mandatory for manufacturers to use USB-C as the standardized charging port on a host of portable devices, including smartphones, tablets, and speakers.

Brinkman suggested moving to a single cable for all applications, as laid out in the proposal, also introduces the complexity of varied charging speeds, cable specifications, and proprietary features.

Apple has been vocal in its resistance to the proposal since the beginning. The move would hurt Apple more than its rivals, most of whom, including Samsung, ship smartphones with USB-C ports, while Apple uses its proprietary Lightning connector to charge the iPhone. 

A bin full of computer and electronics cables.

Baranozdemir / Getty Images

Notably, while Apple has stuck to the Lightning port on the iPhone since its debut with iPhone 5 in 2012, the company has moved to USB-C on many other marquee products such as the iPad Air 4 and recent MacBooks. 

In its feedback to register opposition towards the move, Apple had cautioned the EU that a push for a common charger would hurt innovation and create an "unprecedented volume of electronic waste" if consumers were forced to switch to new chargers. The company contends that the move will also deal a severe blow to the accessories ecosystem built around the Lightning connector.

"We want to ensure that any new legislation will not result in the shipment of any unnecessary cables or external adaptors with every device, or render obsolete the devices and accessories used by many millions of Europeans and hundreds of millions of Apple customers worldwide," wrote Apple.

Brinkman suggests Apple really has only two options. While portless laptops still seem like a gimmick, given Apple's history of removing ports from its devices, Brinkman wouldn't be surprised to see a completely portless iPhone soon. "However, Apple has also leaned into USB-C ports with their MacBooks and iPad Pros, so that could also be a possibility." 

Brinkman is pretty confident Apple wouldn't consider going against its strategy of creating country-specific products. "The complexity of managing phones just for a specific region leads me to believe they may not pursue that path, but only time will tell," opined Brinkman.

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