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Apple Lightning vs USB-C: Can the EU force the iPhone to drop Lightning in 2020?

The EU has been at odds with Apple for years now, but it looks like its most recent vote could be the final nail in the coffin for the company’s proprietary Lightning charger. 

The vote – which passed on Jan 30 with an overwhelming 582-40 votes – urges the European Commission to draft new laws that could potentially result in an end for the Apple phone charger by the end of 2020.

The EU has been campaigning for a universal phone charger since way back in 2009 but Apple has remained resolute that Lightning is the way forward since its initial introduction in 2012.

The question is – can the EU actually force Apple to ditch its own tech? And, what will happen to all the Lightning cables left behind?

We’ve broken down both sides of the argument so you can understand where Apple and the EU are coming from – and what they are proposing we do to limit all that waste.

Related: Best Phone

What the EU says

There’s a history to the EU’s fight for universal chargers. In 2009, a bunch of big phone manufacturers signed the Memorandum of Understand (MoU) to demonstrate their commitment to cutting down on cables across the many phones on the market. Not only did this solution aim to reduce waste and energy consumption – the MoU is estimated to have resulted in six to 21 million less standalone chargers from 2011 to 2013 – but it also hoped to push a competitive Digital Single Market that would benefit both the industry and consumers.

While 90% of new devices supported Micro USB as one common charging method by 2013 (as opposed to the 30 cables found in 2009), the MoU expired the next year and MEPs have struggled to reintroduce a similar law since.

According to an impact assessment drafted by the European Commission in December 2018, the EU is concerned that – aside from the obvious inconvenience caused for consumers – the fragmentation of the charger market could result in other issues, including “limited interoperability, performances and safety issues [and an] increase of e-waste”.

The idea is to pass a law to standardise USB-C as a universal phone charging solution. The EU predicts that this could prevent 50,000 tonnes of waste a year, though this number would likely be dampened by the mass amounts of Apple waste that would be created over the next few years as Apple users make the switch from Lightning-powered phones to USB-C.

Related: Best iPhone

What Apple says

Apple is the manufacturer on the front line of this battle. The iPhone manufacturer has implemented the Lightning charger in handsets for nearly eight years now and, while at times it has looked like the cable will be retired, the company doesn’t seem to appreciate being pushed into that decision by another party.

Apple’s argument is that dumping the Lightning cables would stunt innovation and create an unprecedented level of waste, as millions of iPhone accessories would suddenly becoming obsolete.

“Apple stands for innovation”, said Apple in a statement in January.

“Regulations that would drive conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones freeze innovation rather than encourage it. Such proposals are bad for the environment and unnecessarily disruptive for customers”.

While Apple’s fear of stifling innovation is not unfounded, it is important to note that Apple hasn’t made any big changes to or reinvented the Lightning cable since the charger was first introduced in 2012.

Interestingly enough, Apple does actually agree with the need for one universal charging solution, indicating that it would be “better for innovation, better for consumers and better for the environment”.

The company stated that it has been at the forefront of industry efforts to promote such an option (with a connector) since it was first proposed by EU lawmakers in 2009.

“Apple led industry efforts to work together to promote a common charging solution”, Apple wrote.

“And with the emergence of USB Type-C, we have committed alongside six other companies that all new smartphone models will leverage this standard through a connector or a cable assembly”.

While adapters do bring a level of convenience back to the Lightning cable, they’re yet another cost to the consumer that, at the end of their lifespan, represent one more form of waste to hit landfills.

Related: Best Wireless Charger

So, what does the result mean for iPhone users?

As is, it’s looking as though Apple might follow through with the ruling and drop Lightning. Of course, the European Commission can’t force Apple to do anything outside of its jurisdiction, but Apple is unlikely to make the switch in Europe without updating the phone across the rest of the world.

One reason for this is that – while Apple could potentially build different, location-dependent models of the iPhone – it would greatly complicate the company’s worldwide warranty policy. Releasing two radically different iPhone models could lead to slower repairs for customers and higher costs for Apple, as stores would need to carry or order in specific phone parts as required.

Another hint that Apple might drop the Lightning cable is that it’s already moved some of its more power-hungry devices to USB-C. The company transitioned its MacBooks from Apple’s own MagSafe charging port to USB-C in 2016 and the iPad Pro has since followed in the laptop’s footsteps. It wouldn’t be a huge leap for Apple to do the same with the iPhone, with rumours surrounding the idea for a while now.

If this vote does mark the end for Lightning, we would expect customers to move on gradually. A high level of waste would form in the short term as customers upgrade over the following handful of years, though the hope is that this would prevent more waste being created in the long run.

To an extent, this whole argument seems redundant. The future looks wireless and there’ll be no need for a universal cable when we don’t need cables at all.

If Apple decide to ditch Lightning without adopting USB-C, the new regulation could actually have a positive impact on phones. The law might encourage Apple to rush to adopt port-free iPhones and support wireless-only charging ahead of the game, prompting competing brands to follow and drastically cutting down on e-waste in the long run.

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