EU Decision Forcing Apple’s Switch to USB-C Harms Consumers and Third-Party Accessory Makers

published by Chand Bellur
September 26, 2021 at 8:16 p.m.
  • The EU will enact new regulations forcing all smartphones, tablets, headphones, cameras, portable speakers, and notebook computers to adopt USB-C within 24 months.
  • The new rules, aimed at Apple, seek to address consumer complaints of owning too many chargers and eliminate e-waste allegedly caused by different power adapters.
  • Apple’s power adapters for the iPhone have always either used USB-A or USB-C for external ports.
  • Apple no longer supplies power adapters with its iPhone lineup, assuming that most customers already have at least one compatible adapter.
  • Samsung and other companies followed the practice of not including power adapters with their phones and other devices.
  • Apple currently sells only USB-C power adapters, with a USB-C to Lightning cable supplied with current iPhone models.
  • The EU’s press release only mentions charging, neglecting that consumers use ports to connect accessories and transfer data.
  • Consumers with Lightning-based accessories must decide whether to keep their iPhone for years, buy adapters, or replace connected peripherals.
  • Third-party accessory makers must now redesign Lightning-based products to use USB-C.
  • The EU passed similar, misguided legislation surrounding cookies, making web browsing more tedious and disruptive for end users.

Who’s Afraid of Cookies and Lightning?

Those who lack knowledge are often afraid of the unknown. Many of society’s ills, from racism to misogyny, start with ignorance and are nourished with misinformation. For the non-technical, innocuous realities such as web browser cookies and heterogeneous, proprietary ports can often invoke a fear-based response. Fear can sometimes evolve into counterproductive legislation.

Fear of browser cookies means we all have to deal with pop-up messages that vary from site to site, all of which require user interaction. Sometimes, these messages fool users into opting for something unexpected or clicking on an advertisement. The EU’s intentions were good, but the laws did more harm than good.

Publishers like myself had to jump through hurdles to make our websites less user-friendly. When the dust settled, the EU cookie consent regulations did little to ensure privacy. The entire affair was a nuisance for Internet publishers and web users alike.

The European Union recently solidified regulations surrounding “charging” ports on digital devices. In 24 months, most digital devices sold in the EU, including the popular iPhone, must use USB-C ports. In its press release, the EU fails to mention that these ports also connect accessories and serve as data conduits. Some of these components cannot be retrofit with adapters, such as form-fitting dock connectors for speakers and musical equipment. Others, such as adapters fitted to wired headphones, make an iPhone cumbersome and the connectors more prone to damage.

iQ6 Stereo Microphones with Lightning Connector
image credit: Amazon      A third-party accessory maker designed this stereo microphone set to attach firmly to the iPhone with a Lightning port. If the EU compels Apple to switch to USB-C, owners of this accessory must either replace it or buy an adapter. With an adapter, this once form-fitting accessory no longer fits snuggly on the end of an iPhone. This is just one of several devices designed to attach firmly to an iPhone with a Lightning connector.

The EU’s recent decision on USB-C is based more on fear than reality. While the legislation intends to improve consumers’ experience and eliminate e-waste, the outcomes may undermine these goals. Apple stopped shipping power adapters with new iPhones last year, starting with the iPhone 12. All new iPhones only come with a USB-C to Lightning cable — no headphones and no power adapter. If you go to the Apple Store, either in person or online, you can only purchase a charger with a USB-C port. Even when Apple supplied the charger, the actual port on the charger used USB-A and was interoperable with other devices simply by swapping out the cable.

The EU’s new regulations seem to lag behind reality, making them ineffective and detrimental. They aim to curb e-waste; however, Apple no longer supplies chargers. In fact, new iPhone owners only get the smartphone and a USB-C to Lightning cable. Out of the box, iPhone customers must use USB-C.

While it’s true that the iPhone uses a Lightning port and not USB-C, a simple cable allows this port to use USB-C for charging and accessories. If the EU’s goal was to minimize e-waste, forcing the iPhone to adopt a USB-C port won’t actually decrease the number of chargers. It won’t reduce the number of cables, as manufacturers are still allowed to supply these. The EU is simply punishing the one company that took the lead on eliminating chargers — Apple.

As for consumers, it’s unclear if they’re protected. For years, people could use virtually any charger with the iPhone. Apple first supplied USB-A to Lightning cables, later shifting to USB-C on one end of the wire. I remember charging my iPhone 4 with my computer’s USB-A port on occasion.

Apple never relied on a proprietary charger. Instead, they used a proprietary port and cable, still supplied with each device. The reason why consumers have so many chargers is that, for years, they came with devices. Manufacturers realized this before the EU manifested its latent epiphany. The rules were years in the making. It appears that the EU decided to go through with the regulations, even though the industry changed, no longer supplying now-ubiquitous power adapters to overstocked consumers.

Free headphones are a thing of the past because most of us have a dozen pairs of mediocre earbuds. The EU didn’t even think of curbing this aspect of e-waste. Apple led the way because being environmentally responsible is attractive to its customers. It’s also possible that a few of their execs have consciences. Let’s not forget, giving consumers fewer items in the box reduces costs for Apple.

EU USB-C Rules Harm Consumers

As mentioned, Apple spearheaded the move to eliminate chargers with products, as consumers already have an abundance. Samsung and other companies quickly followed suit. Apple led the way in limiting this e-waste and, with a supplied USB-C to Lightning cable, new iPhone owners can use virtually any modern charger for their device.

The EU didn’t solve any problems with their USB-C ruling. Instead, they created headaches for consumers.

Imagine if you just bought a new audio dock for your iPhone. It uses a Lightning plug to attach your iPhone to the dock firmly. The new EU ruling may force Apple to switch the iPhone to a USB-C port. This means that snug connection to your audio dock will be loose and wobbly because you’ll need a USB-C to Lightning adapter when you buy a new iPhone. Perhaps if you turn it up too loud, the bass could knock your iPhone out of the dock, made unstable by the adapter.

When the iPhone made its last port switch, I had to abandon a year-old alarm clock with an iPhone dock. It was a great way to charge my iPhone and listen to music on larger speakers. Unfortunately, this inconvenience and waste will happen yet again to iPhone owners. I had to throw out the alarm clock, as it was utterly useless. The last iPhone port switch created e-waste, and the next one will, too, as people abandon audio docks, alarm clocks, and other form-fitting accessories.

If you just bought a new pair of high-end Lightning headphones, you’ll need an adapter to use them with your future USB-C iPhone. You’ll have more firm plastic parts sticking out of the end of your device, making it easier to disconnect or snap off the connector. It won’t fit in your pocket easily anymore, if at all.

DxO Lightning-Based DSLR Camera for iPhone
image credit: Macworld

With Apple Music going Lossless, third-party accessory makers have developed a slew of audio converters to deliver the best possible sound to external speakers. Some of these use Lightning. It’s unknown whether an adapter will work or compromise the high-speed data connection needed for the high-resolution digital-to-analog conversion.

Needless to say, if you’re an Apple customer, it’s best to put off accessory purchases for now. Wireless is a safe bet, but many high-end audio/visual accessories require the greater bandwidth of a physical port.

EU USB-C Ruling Harms Third-Party Accessory Makers

If you run a company making high-end, wired accessories for the iPhone, you’re likely unamused by the EU’s new USB-C policy. In addition to redesigning products, consumers may postpone wired accessory purchases until they obtain a USB-C compatible iPhone.

Redesigning accessories to use USB-C instead of Lightning is no simple task. Some high-end audio devices will need to re-engineer their technology altogether. There are steep costs involved with this process. Instead of reaping revenues, these companies must go back to the drawing board, all for little benefit.

Rode VIDEOMIC-ME-L Uses Lightning Connector
image credit: Full Compass

The notion that switching to USB-C makes the accessory open to more consumers seems reasonable but doesn’t consider the differing consumers. People who buy high-end audio accessories almost always own an iPhone. Despite Android’s astronomical market share, audiophile accessories for smartphones are practically exclusive to Lighting and the iPhone. These manufacturers have to pay to license Lightning technology, yet the market is so lucrative, they prefer to settle up with Apple than sell to Android users. Now, these niche, third-party companies will be forced to switch to USB-C at their expense.

EU USB-C Ruling Stifles Innovation

The EU’s decision stifles innovation in two ways. First, large tech corporations like Apple could shy away from some innovations if they feel the EU may impede them. Additionally, third-party accessory makers could pursue other opportunities, as it’s simply too risky to cater to the iPhone, a device that’s under constant scrutiny due to its ubiquity.

To work around the EU ruling and remain innovative, Apple may develop its own wireless protocol for connecting accessories. Some tech analysts, including myself and Ming-Chi Kuo, believe future iPhones will be completely wireless, without a single port.

Bluetooth has too many limitations and doesn’t offer the real-world throughput to deliver high-end video, multi-track audio, and other high bandwidth applications. The Cupertino tech giant could reinvent wireless, even more than the H-series chips in AirPods, which make up for many Bluetooth shortcomings. Imagine if you could beam videos to a TV without being connected to a WiFi network? It’s certainly possible, as WiFi itself offers such high-bandwidth and long-range capabilities. If a modern smartphone can connect to WiFi and even serve as a hotspot, it shows that ultra-fast wireless device connectivity is possible.

Unfortunately, Apple may think twice about creating advanced wireless technology for its devices. If they take the lead, the industry will copy them, and then the EU will force Apple to embrace the standard. Tim Cook may decide to simply move the iPhone to USB-C and wait for better, more standard wireless technology to emerge. This sets back innovation, as a portless iPhone would be more water and dust resistant, less breakable, and feature a slimmer form.

New EU USB-C Rules May Increase E-Waste

New EU Rules Forcing USB-C Standard May Increase E-Waste

The EU’s mission to eliminate e-waste may prove counterproductive. Numerous devices use Lightning connectors, and not all of them can use adapters. Many form-fitting accessories won’t accommodate Lightning-to-USB-C converters. Consumers may throw them out and purchase replacements. These devices often end up in landfills.

Beyond accessories, forcing Apple to adopt USB-C may result in discarded iPhones. If Apple switches to USB-C, accessory makers will follow suit. This makes Lightning-equipped iPhones obsolete, as they’re no longer compatible with the newest accessories. Also, some USB-C enthusiasts may ditch their Lightning-equipped iPhone for one they can charge with the same cable they use with other devices.

When people abandon old iPhones, many end up as e-waste, despite Apple’s best efforts. People may try to sell them, but this may prove difficult with a glut of old, Lightning-based iPhones on the market. Consumers may instead choose to purchase a new iPhone with a USB-C port over a used Lightning model, which may seem outdated. Recycling one’s iPhone is easy, but many people will throw it out, as it takes less effort.

It’s clear that the EU didn’t think this through. The regulations were years in the making, and things changed, but they still went through with them. It’s difficult to envision how the new rules stem e-waste when they render accessories and iPhones obsolete. 

Consumers Pay for Apple’s Switch to USB-C

Whenever the government compels a corporation to change practices, consumers always shoulder the costs. Although it’s theoretically possible for a corporation to take a hit on profitability, this never happens. Corporations are accountable to stockholders more than consumers. Increasing profitability boosts stock value while decreasing profitability has the opposite effect.

Moving from Lightning to USB-C is not a trivial endeavor. Apple does have some expertise, as the iPad Pro now uses USB-C instead of Lightning. The newest base model iPad still features a Lightning port, however. Even with prior knowledge of hardware and software alterations needed for the port switch, it will still result in costs for Apple, which it passes on to customers.

Apple, more than any other company, relies on economies of scales effects to reduce costs. Essentially, this is akin to a volume discount at a warehouse store. For a consumer, buying six pairs of socks reduces the price per pair. Similarly, if Apple purchases tens of millions of components at once, each part costs less. This is an essential strategy in keeping iPhone costs competitive while maintaining Apple’s profitability.

It’s possible that Apple already has components stockpiled to manufacture products with Lightning ports. Apple uses the port across several products, not just the iPhone. Switching to USB-C means that these components are now worthless, and Apple must buy replacement parts. Of course, they’ll need to pass these costs on to consumers, either through product pricing or limiting costs in other ways.

Beyond parts, the USB-C mandate forces Apple employees to work on this project instead of something more useful. To some extent, Apple will be less innovative because they’re swapping one port for another instead of working on something new and exciting. This project requires redirecting engineering talent from productive endeavors to mere compliance.

If you’re an Apple fan and applaud the EU’s move to enforce a USB-C standard, it’s essential to understand that this change will hurt you. Your future iPhone will be less innovative and may cost more. If it doesn’t cost more, it will be less of a value. As it stands, all Apple chargers have either a USB-A (older models) or USB-C (newer models) port. To charge a USB-C device with an Apple charger involves swapping a cable, not a power adapter. No Apple customers should be applauding the EU’s ruling, which will result in a costlier or less innovative iPhone.

Why Doesn’t Europe Switch to 120 Voltage?

The most unfortunate aspect of the EU’s cockamamie technology rulings is that they often apply to the whole world. The EU is so large; it can now dictate product development for the rest of the world. Apple isn’t going to offer USB-C to the EU and sell Lightning-equipped iPhones everywhere else. For the sake of economies of scale and simplicity, all future iPhones will change to meet EU regulations.

With the cookie consent law, many sites, such as this one, will only show the pop-up message to users in the EU. Nonetheless, there is some performance hit in ascertaining regional locations and conditionally displaying a confirmation. I also had to spend a lot of time researching and implementing solutions to this issue. For some time, like many other websites, I showed the cookie consent banner to all users because the location code was a bigger performance hit than just displaying the message to everyone.

And yes, the irony of the cookie consent banner is that websites must now gather your location! We must also store all sorts of information so you can ask to delete it. The EU cookie consent law resulted in less privacy and more user-tracking, with a vast majority opting into accepting all cookies on every site.

Cookies and Lightning ports are nothing to be feared. They don’t kill people. One could argue that the EU should switch to 120 voltage, as it’s safer for electricians and the public. It would also reduce consumer frustration for those who travel and need various adapters and step-up/step-down converters. Appliance and electronics makers would no longer need to create two different models for differing voltage requirements.

I own a Bang and Olufsen stereo that requires a step-down converter for power, as they designed it to run on a 220-volt current. The converter costs over $100 and uses a fair amount of energy itself. I can’t leave the converter on indefinitely, so I need to turn it on before using the stereo. I also need to remember to shut it off when it’s not in use. It’s an added ritual, all because the EU won’t switch to 120 voltage.

This stereo also doesn’t have standard RCA audio jacks found on most A/V equipment. Instead, it uses a 5-pin audio connector, unique to a few European audio brands. The 5-pin to RCA adapter costs $80. I’m on my second adapter because they’re fragile and break easily. Why doesn’t the EU force B&O and a handful of other haughty audiophile companies to use standard RCA jacks?

Forcing USB-C on the world may seem like a good idea. On its surface, it enforces a standard. The benefits of the regulations, however, are weak. The new rules don’t cut down on e-waste, as Apple always used USB standards in their chargers. The company led the way in removing chargers from its smartphone packaging.

The EU seems to misunderstand one simple point — Apple’s chargers always embraced USB technology. The cable and ports are different, but consumers could always use an Apple power adapter to charge other devices. I’ve used Apple chargers for everything from my hot beard brush to my Android devices. Like many people, I have several of them, and I’m grateful that Apple no longer includes them. I only need to swap out the cable with one supplied by my device maker.

The EU ruling placates Android users and Apple haters. Consumers steeped in the Apple ecosystem may face issues. For the most part, it will be inconsequential for the Apple customer but a headache for the company. The typical Apple customer owns an iPhone and AirPods. The port is solely for charging. The EU ruling only means that they will plug a different cable into their iPhone to charge it if they’re not charging it wirelessly already.

For Apple, they must decide to either go wireless or replace Lightning with USB-C on numerous devices. It’s not just the iPhone that uses Lightning. Beats headphones, AirPods, the Magic Keyboard, the Magic Mouse, the Magic Trackpad, the standard iPad and iPad Mini, Apple TV’s Siri Remote and other Apple devices use Lightning. Forced to embrace this standard for little benefit, Apple must allocate resources to this fire drill rather than toward innovation. 

The notion that you’ll be able to use the same cable to charge all of your devices doesn’t ring true for Apple customers. They’ll need to use Lightning for their old gear and USB-C for the new stuff. Having written about USB-C vs. Lightning, I’m well aware that those in favor of USB-C for the iPhone aren’t Apple customers. They’re Android fanboy trolls. Any Apple customer knows that a future USB-C iPhone means they’ll need two cables for everything, at least for the next few years, unless they want to replace it all. The EU and Apple trolls won. Apple and its customers lost.

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