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Forget the USB-C iPhone. Apple’s endgame is no cable at all

The European Commission voted overwhelmingly to standardize on a single USB power cable for smartphones. Apple is pushing back—but it may be looking past charging cables entirely.

Forget the USB-C iPhone. Apple’s endgame is no cable at all
[Photo: Lucian Alexe/Unsplash]

Apple has been emphatically resisting the European Commission’s recommendation that the EU institute a law requiring all phone makers to use one charging standard. But the company’s obstinance on the matter might involve considerations other than the ones it’s made public.

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The European Commission, which proposes laws for the EU, voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to propose legislation compelling companies selling smartphones in Europe to commit to a single charging standard—which, logically, would be the already widely adopted USB-C. This, the commission argues, would greatly reduce the number of cables people would need. More importantly, it would cut way down on the number of charging cables and wall units that end up in landfills.

Such a law would also force Apple to ditch its proprietary Lightning cable. Apple, which sold the most phones of any phone maker in the world last quarter, would—in theory—be hurt more than anybody else. Makers of Android phones have already switched to USB-C (or, in a dwindling number of instances, haven’t yet switched over from the aging but economical Micro USB). Apple says that just forcing it to ditch its own Lightning standard would send generations of its familiar white chargers and cables to the landfill.

Last week, an Apple spokesperson said in a statement: “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.” It also said an EU law would be a blow against “innovation.”

Even if Apple does have to move from Lightning to USB-C, it’ll only be temporary.

Apple’s arguments don’t sound very strong to me. The company didn’t fret about making millions of old cables obsolete when it made a voluntary pledge to move toward the Micro USB standard back in 2009. While Micro USB became the standard for other companies, Apple instead went its own way with Lightning, which—unlike Micro USB and Apple’s earlier Dock Connector—lets you plug a cable into a port without worrying about which side was up. The first iPhones with Lightning ports appeared in 2012, sending millions of old Dock Connector cables to the trash heap.

Apple also hasn’t specified what it means by a possible USB law stifling innovation. Is it working on a connector that’s better than today’s Lightning or USB-C?

Look EU, no cable

These may all be moot points in a couple of years. Rather than resisting a potential EU law because it doesn’t want to switch out Lightning for USB-C, Apple may be eyeing an option that’s better still than having one standard charging cable. That’s having no charging cable at all.

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Reports surfaced last week that Apple is working on a 2021 iPhone that can be charged wirelessly—and only wirelessly. In a January 16 Cult of Mac story, Killian Bell wrote:

Barclays analysts Blayne Curtis, Baylie Harris, and Thomas O’Malley today report that at least one iPhone coming in 2021 will arrive without a port altogether. It will instead rely solely on wireless connectivity options.

The report also says that the 2021 iPhone would rely on wireless for data transfers as well as charging. If there’s reality to this rumor, Apple may now just be trying to slow down the EU’s movement toward a charging standard in order to buy time. The longer it takes for the EU to pass a law, the greater the likelihood Apple will be able to stick with Lightning until it can shift entirely to wireless charging.

Even if Apple does have to move from Lightning to USB-C, it’ll only be temporary. So whether you love or hate the prospect of a USB-C iPhone—something that people have been ruminating about for years—don’t spend too much time thinking about it. The shift that’s really going to provoke strong opinions is coming up when Apple introduces a line of iPhones with no port at all.

It’ll be another headphone jack moment for Apple users. Some people will see it as progress and others will see it as the most consumer-unfriendly thing Apple’s ever done.

The timing of all this is very much in flux, even though the European Commission has been trying to get to a standard wireless charging standard for more than a decade. The Commission has said its next step is to do an impact study on a move toward one charging standard. Only after that study is complete will the EU consider a law. While that’s all going on, Apple’s engineers will likely be working on engineering an iPhone that’s entirely dependent on wireless charging. And based on what we saw with the ill-fated AirPower, it’s hard to know how quickly that will progress.

But the moment is likely coming when Phil Schiller gets up on stage at the Steve Jobs Theater and tells us that Apple had the courage to remove the charging jack from the iPhone.

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Ultimately, it’s all part of the natural evolution of the iPhone. Apple is obsessive about wringing unnecessary elements out of its devices. The company will continue shrinking or removing bulky components until the iPhone is just a black pane of glass display that almost disappears when you turn it sideways.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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