Today the EU Commission proposed a new law requiring USB-C as the standard for all “smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers, and handheld videogame consoles.” The most famous USB-C holdout is the iPhone, but this proposal doesn’t spell the end of the Lighting cable yet.
Before we get into what this means for Apple, it’s essential to understand what’s happening in the first place. To be clear, we aren’t talking about a new law taking effect today. Instead, the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, proposed a new law for consideration. Every detail about the proposal could change before it becomes law, and in fact, the proposal could never become law. It’s also worth keeping in mind that technically an EU law doesn’t affect America, but in practice, this one could.
With that out of the way, let’s look at what the proposal … well proposes. The EU Commission desires to make USB-C the standard across smartphones, tablets, cameras, and more. But it goes beyond that with four basic tenets:
- A harmonised charging port for electronic devices: USB-C will be the common port. This will allow consumers to charge their devices with the same USB-C charger, regardless of the device brand.
- Harmonised fast charging technology will help prevent that different producers unjustifiably limit the charging speed and will help to ensure that charging speed is the same when using any compatible charger for a device.
- Unbundling the sale of a charger from the sale of the electronic device: consumers will be able to purchase a new electronic device without a new charger. This will limit the number of unwanted chargers purchased or left unused. Reducing production and disposal of new chargers is estimated to reduce the amount of electronic waste by almost a thousand tonnes’ yearly.
- Improved information for consumers: producers will need to provide relevant information about charging performance, including information on the power required by the device and if it supports fast charging. This will make it easier for consumers to see if their existing chargers meet the requirements of their new device or help them to select a compatible charger. Combined with the other measures, this would help consumers limit the number of new chargers purchased and help them save €250 million a year on unnecessary charger purchases.
So the proposal states that all devices need to use USB-C, support a compatible version of fast charging across devices, stop packing charging blocks with the device, and provide clear information on fast charging requirements. The first bit is the one that affects Apple the most.
Currently, even the latest iPhone and the entry-level iPad use proprietary Lightning ports. The last bit is interesting because while the entry-level iPad stuck with LIghting cables, the new iPad mini made the jump to USB-C, bringing it in line with the iPad Air and iPad Pro.
The law, if implemented, would seem to force Apple to stop using Lighting connectors on its two holdout devices someday. And someday would be “two years after the law is enacted.” So even if the EU made the proposal law today with the exact wording in place, Apple would have two years to decide how to handle the change.
But even with the law, that doesn’t necessarily mean all iPhones would switch to USB-C. Apple could go several routes. In the past, when Europe pressured the most prevalent phone manufacturers to sign onto a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) that made MicroUSB the defacto standard, Apple got around it with a loophole. Rather than switch to MicroUSB, Apple created a Lighting-to-USB adapter and sold it for extra.
The MoU specifically had that loophole built into the wording, making it easy for Apple to go that route. The new proposal doesn’t offer that option, but it doesn’t forbid it either. Apple could attempt to argue that a Lighting-to-USB-C adapter fulfills its obligation, setting another standoff.
Alternatively, Apple could offer a USB-C iPhone, but only in the European Union. Everywhere else, including the United States, might continue to see iPhones with Lightning connectors. That route seems less likely, as creating a different version of the iPhone incurs cost.
Still, Apple could avoid the issue entirely by forgoing any port on the iPhone at all. While the proposal codifies what port smartphones must use if they have any port at all, it doesn’t require a port. Apple could instead move to a portless iPhone that relies solely on wireless charging for power and AirDrop for file transfers. Rumors of a “portless iPhone” have been around for years, but it still seems unlikely. If nothing else because having a port is helpful for diagnostic reasons when an iPhone needs repair. Apple would need to design a secure wireless diagnostic connection method.
The most likely outcome is that Apple would eventually switch to USB-C on its iPhone and entry-level iPad models. But that’s not necessarily a big win for the law, given that every other iPad model already made the jump, along with Macbooks. It seems like a likely scenario with or without the law. At the most generous, it might speed up the process.
But that doesn’t mean the potential law wouldn’t accomplish anything. You should also look at the other three tenets of the proposal.
In addition to establishing USB-C as the standard, the proposal suggests three other significant changes. The first creates a quasi “fast charging standard.” That might affect Android phones just as much or maybe more than the iPhone. As wired fast charging becomes more and more prevalent, some manufacturers are trying to distinguish themselves with “the fastest charging,” which leads to one-off power bricks that only fast charge a specific device.
The law should, in theory, prevent that, and a “super-fast charger” for this device would also work for that device (if it supported fast charging). But it will probably be on you to buy the charger because the proposal benefits manufacturers with one of its other tenets—no more charging blocks in the box.
Manufacturers are already moving to leave the charging brick out of the box, something Apple started, but others like Samsung and Microsoft quickly copied. The EU proposal gives manufacturers some cover by not only making it a “requirement” (we’re not allowed to provide you with the brick) but backing up the reasoning: fewer charging bricks means less e-waste. The basic thinking is that most people already have a charging brick or plan to buy the better fast charging option.
And finally, the proposal requires manufacturers to provide “improved information” about the charging performance of devices. Does the gadget offer fast charging? How fast? What’s needed to achieve that top speed? With the “improved information,” the hope is that it will be easier for you to determine if the block you already own is good enough to charge your new shiny gadget at its fastest rate.
That’s somewhat necessary because USB-C is a mess.
So now, let’s address the elephant in the room: USB-C. USB-C was supposed to be a universal standard that meant everything “just works.” Grab a cable, a charger, plug it in, and everything just works. But the truth is, what we were promised and what we have is vastly different.
A USB-C port on a device might support Thunderbolt, video, fast data transfers, and charging. But just because it can do all of those things doesn’t mean it does. Or that all of those options are supported equally. The USB-C port on a laptop might support 100-Watt charging… or less. It might support fast data transfer, but not video. And Thunderbolt is a beast all of its own.
USB-C is the standard that isn’t a standard at all. And the truth is, this proposal won’t fix that. It might help people understand more about what fast charging options their action camera or smartphone supports, but it won’t guarantee it supports fast charging at all.
Our sister-site, How-To Geek, has article after article dedicated to explaining the difference between Thunderbolt and USB-C, Displayport, the different generations of USB, and more, just because USB is so complicated. And that’s not changing.
At the end of the day, if this proposal becomes law and convinces manufacturers to make the switch even in the U.S., it won’t have made everything easier to understand. The law won’t even make every device work the same or support similar capabilities. It will just standardize the shape of the ports on your device. And that’s something, I guess.