Earlier this year, after a period of almost a decade of anxiety, the European Parliament approved binding plans for a European-wide pricing standard. But what does this really mean? Well, it’s complicated, but it could have effects far beyond Europe.
What is the EU doing?
Reports on this subject are confusing. For example, an article on The Verge originally argued that the EU was not targeting Apple’s Lightning connector, but simply wanted to require USB-C wall chargers –a product that Apple is already making. The Verge later updated this article to clarify the situation was not as simple as that.
We do not yet know exactly what the EU will need. He may ask Apple to replace the Lightning connector on iPhones sold in the EU with USB-C. Apple is definitely concerned about this possibility.
What we do know is that the proposal, which was adopted with overwhelming support, will ultimately require that all devices sold in the EU-27 block use the same charging technology. When implemented, it will have ramifications for everyone, not just those living in one of the 27 EU countries. We will explain why.
Cables and commissions
Before getting to the heart of the matter, it is necessary to find out what led to the latest proposals from the European Commission.
It is not the first time that the EU has had mobile charging technology in its sights. It’s a persistent bane for the European Commission, which has been calling for a common standard across the bloc for a decade.
The problem raised his thorny head for the first time in 2011, when cell phones (or “stupid”) were still part of the mobile landscape. At the time, it was not uncommon for manufacturers to use their proprietary chargers in their handsets, which were mutually incompatible.
A Sony Ericsson charger, for example, did not work with a Nokia phone. Likewise, an Alcatel plug did not work with a Samsung phone.
There have been some problems with this. First, it did not suit consumers, who (at one point) had to deal with 30 different billing standards. Second, it produced a huge amount of waste. Whenever you changed phones, your old charger became obsolete and almost certainly ended up in a landfill.
The rapid emergence of ubiquitous smartphones has solved this problem. They have largely moved cell phones to ordinary consumers and merged around the micro USB standard. In 2013, 90% of all phone providers had switched to micro USB.
The only outlier was, of course, Apple, which has always preferred to use internal standards. IPhones and other matching devices previously used the 30-pin format before Apple switched to the smaller Lightning port in 2012.
In 2018, the former European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, launched a study on the state of pricing standards produce concrete rules at European level.
So what prompted the commission to reconsider the issue?
Well, some devices still cling to the aging micro USB standard, while others adopt USB-C. And yes, Lightning is still very present on Apple devices.
Meanwhile, in the USB-C sphere, there is an amount of variation that is often invisible. Some phones support fast charging, others do not. Some cables support USB-C PD, others do not. And by the way, is it USB-C or Thunderbolt?
What the EU hopes to achieve
The European Parliament has ordered the executive of the bloc government, the European Commission, to act on this issue by July 2020. It already has the power to do so through: the radio equipment directive, which was adopted in 2014.
If the European Commission fails to come up with a solid plan, Parliament has ordered the commission to develop tailor-made legislation, which it will then vote on.
The European Parliament’s proposals neither impose nor condemn any particular technological element, and do not explicitly support USB-C or Lightning. However, since USB-C is the current power and data transfer standard used by many manufacturers, it is pretty obvious where the chips will fall.
Of course, the common pricing standard is subject to change over the years. Parliament explicitly called for measures that would allow for a regular review of the rules to ensure that the EU keeps abreast of technology.
The EU will also introduce measures to guarantee the interoperability of wireless charging systems in the coming years. This motion does not solve any real problem …wireless charging has become more standardized over time, but rather, it is a protective mechanism for the future. The European Parliament is concerned about a potential future schism.
Another issue that the EU would like to explore is the prospect of phone manufacturers “unlinking” chargers and cables from their devices. The intention is to reduce the amount of electronic waste produced by the mobile industry. If you already have a phone with a working charger, you don’t necessarily need another.
The proposal also envisions the end of the charge life cycle and wants to make it easier for people to recycle their broken or obsolete cables and plugs.
What does this mean for the rest of the world?
EU law only binds its member countries and the associated countries of the European Economic Area. However, as a bloc, the EU is rich enough and large enough to influence countries far beyond its borders. It contains some of the world’s largest markets for consumer technology, including France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
In most cases, it will make sense for phone manufacturers to comply with the not yet published EU standard so that they can sell their products worldwide, even in markets that do not prescribe it.
However, it is also possible for manufacturers to follow precedents and create EU-specific versions of their phones. Apple has been producing a dual-sim version of the iPhone in China and Hong Kong for several years. Samsung also provided more esoteric devices, such as the Galaxy J2 DTV, to Asian markets.
Only time will tell, but these proposals may be slightly pointless. While USB-C fragmentation is a real problem, it has been said that Apple could move away from Lightning for its smartphones.
We saw the change of course at Cupertino. The world’s largest consumer technology company is now using USB-C to charge its new MacBook and iPad Pro devices.
We don’t yet know what charging standard the EU will require, or how Apple will respond. However, despite what you might read online, the Lightning connector on iPhones is a potential target.