Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 25 September 2021


Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The European Commission shook the iPhone world to its roots this week, announcing a new policy that would require all smartphones to adopt USB-C ports for physical charging in an effort to reduce e-waste.

Apple, of course, doesn’t offer a USB-C iPhone, having argued to the European Commission in the past that “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.”

Switching to USB-C, Apple says, would actually be more wasteful than sticking with Lightning, since customers would need new cables and adapters — despite the fact that Apple already offers USB-C ports on its iPads and its MacBooks and has managed to switch over those popular products without major issues or customer revolts.

Notably absent from Apple’s argument, though, is the fact that cutting out a Lightning port on an iPhone wouldn’t just create more e-waste (if you buy Apple’s logic) or inconvenience its customers. It also means that Apple would lose out on the revenue it makes from every Lightning cable and accessory that works with the iPhone, Apple-made or not — along with the control it has over what kinds of hardware does (or doesn’t) get to exist for the iPhone and which companies get to make them.

Apple’s MFi program means that if you want to plug anything into an iPhone, be it charger or adapter or accessory, you have to go through Apple. And Apple takes a cut of every one of those devices, too.

Want to connect an external display? You’ll need an Apple-approved adapter. Import photos and videos from an SD card or flash drive? An Apple-approved adapter. Want to use a DAC to take advantage of Apple Music’s new hi-res lossless audio? Again, you’ll either need an MFi device or an Apple-approved USB dongle.

The same, of course, isn’t true of Apple’s USB-C-based devices, which have a robust ecosystem that can broadly be defined as virtually every product that uses USB-C. With a USB-C iPad, you can simply plug in flash drives and keyboards and displays and any number of useful additions that make those devices better. Apple even made a point of that fact during its latest keynote when announcing the new iPad Mini. And of course, USB-C iPads can be charged by any standard USB-C cable that’s capable of putting out enough wattage.

The European Commission's rule could theoretically do the same for iPhones by forcing into existence the USB-C iPhone that Apple has adamantly refused to make thus far. But the new change may mean that Apple could shift towards (or accelerate its plans for) a completely portless iPhone instead. Rather than give into USB-C ports, the company could eschew ports entirely in order to shift customers towards using its proprietary charging methods.

It’s the sort of solution that seems obvious — it’s practically an intentional loophole in the EU policy — until you consider how little sense a portless iPhone makes, absent Apple’s desire to defend its accessory fees and ecosystem control.

Switching to USB-C, a standard that’s used by virtually every other major tech product (including many of Apple’s own, like its recent MacBook and IPad lineups) would make sense. The iPhone is possibly the most popular device in the world that uses a proprietary charger, and a switch to USB-C would simplify charging setups for the millions of iPhone owners around the world. And USB-C would still allow for similar waterproofing, data transfer, and charging speeds compared to Lightning (as evidenced by any number of Android phones or Apple’s iPads.) There’s a reason the European Commission is looking to institute the new change, after all.

If the EU allowed Apple to stick with Lightning, keeping that standard around also makes a certain amount of sense, even if it’s frustrating to those (like me) who would prefer a more unified charging standard. Lightning is an established ecosystem that millions of customers already have cables for, with fast data transfer and charging speeds. Like USB-C, it offers waterproofing capabilities, and it gets Apple both its licensing fees and ecosystem control.

But a portless iPhone that relies on MagSafe (or another wireless standard) is a baffling proposition. It would force millions of customers to have to switch to new chargers, generating tons of e-waste in the process. The result of all that cost and effort would be a charging and data transfer system that is slower and less power efficient in every way compared to wired cables, while also being larger and bulkier than a Lightning or a USB-C wire — just compare the size of one of Apple’s MagSafe cables, or the smallest Qi wireless charger, to a regular wired plug.

Apple is a $2.4 trillion company; it likely would be just fine without the revenues it gets from Lightning cable fees, should it switch to USB-C entirely. After all, there’s still plenty of proprietary Apple chargers and technologies out there to license, too, like MagSafe, AirPlay, Find My, or the rumored new magnetic laptop chargers that may be in the works for later this year.

But profits aside, a switch to USB-C would mean relinquishing another piece of control over what iPhone owners can do with their devices outside of Apple’s carefully curated walled garden. And that, as we’ve seen time and again, is something that Apple is loath to allow.

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