Earlier this year, after almost ten years of fear, the European Parliament approved binding plans for a Europe-wide cable charging standard. But what does that actually mean? Well, it's complicated ̵
What is the EU doing?
Reporting on this topic was confusing. For example, an article about The Verge originally argued that the EU is not targeting Apple's Lightning connector, but just wants USB-C wall chargers – a product Apple is already making. The Verge later updated this article to clarify that the situation was not so short and dry.
We still don't know exactly what the EU will ask. Apple may need to replace the Lightning connector on USB phones sold in the EU. Apple is certainly concerned about this option.
What we know is the proposal, which has been overwhelmingly supported and will eventually dictate that all devices sold within the 27-member EU block use the same charging technology. If this is done, it will affect everyone, not just those living in one of the 27 EU countries. We'll explain why.
From cables and commissions
Before we can look into the flesh of the plans, some background information on what has led to the recent European Commission proposals is needed.
This is not the first time that the EU has mobile charging technology in its crosshairs. It was a stubborn annoyance for the European Commission, which has been calling for a common standard across the block for a decade.
The problem became sensitive for the first time in 2011 when feature phones (or "stupid" phones) were still part of the mobile landscape. Back then, it was not uncommon for manufacturers to use their proprietary chargers in their cell phones that were incompatible with each other.
For example, a Sony Ericsson charger did not work with a Nokia phone. Similarly, an Alcatel connector did not work with a Samsung phone.
There were some problems with it. First, it was inconvenient for consumers struggling with 30 different fee standards (at one point). Second, it produced an enormous amount of waste. Whenever you changed phones, your old charger became obsolete and almost certainly ended up in a landfill.
The rapid emergence of ubiquitous smartphones solved this problem. They largely replaced function telephones for normal consumers and merged around the micro USB standard. By 2013, 90 percent of all telephone providers had switched to micro USB.
The only outlier, of course, was Apple, which has always preferred to use internal standards. iPhones and other various devices used the 30-pin format before Apple switched to the smaller Lightning port in 2012.
In 2018, the former EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager started a study on the status of loading standards for concrete production, Europe-wide rules.
What prompted the Commission to re-examine the problem?
Well, some devices still stick to the aging micro USB standard, while others use USB-C. And yes, Lightning is still a big deal on Apple devices.
In the USB-C sphere there is now an often invisible number of variations. Some phones support fast charging, others do not. Some cables support USB-C PD, others do not. And by the way, is it USB-C or Thunderbolt?
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The European Parliament ordered the executive element of the bloc government: the European Commission will take action on this matter by July 2020. It is already authorized to do this thanks to the Radio Equipment Directive adopted in 2014.
If the European Commission does not achieve a solid plan, the Parliament is asked to draft a custom law, which it will then vote on.
The European Parliament's proposals do not prescribe or condemn any particular technology, nor do they explicitly support USB-C or Lightning. Given that USB-C is the current power and data transfer standard used by many manufacturers, it's pretty obvious where the chips will go.
Of course, the usual charging standard is likely to change over the years. Parliament explicitly called for measures that would allow regular review of the rules to ensure that the EU kept pace with technology.
The EU will also introduce measures to ensure the interoperability of wireless charging systems in the coming years. This application does not address existing problems – wireless charging has become more standardized over time – but is a protection mechanism for the future. The European Parliament is concerned about a possible future schism.
The prospect of phone manufacturers "unbundling" chargers and cables from their devices is another issue that the EU wants to investigate. The goal is to reduce the amount of electronic waste that is produced by the mobile phone industry. If you already have a phone with a working charger, you don't necessarily need another one.
The proposal also takes into account the end of the charging life cycle and wants to make it easier for people to recycle their broken or outdated devices, cables and plugs.
What does this mean for the rest of the world?
EU legislation is only binding for the member states and the associated countries of the European Economic Area. As a bloc, however, the EU is rich enough and big enough to influence countries far beyond their borders. It contains some of the world's major consumer technology markets, including France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
In most cases, it makes sense for telephone manufacturers to adhere to the as yet unpublished EU standard so they can sell their products worldwide – even in markets where this is not mandatory.
However, it is also possible for manufacturers to follow precedents and create EU-specific versions of their phones. Apple has been producing a dual-SIM version of the iPhone in China and Hong Kong for several years. Samsung has also provided more esoteric devices like the Galaxy J2 DTV for Asian markets.
Only time will tell, but these suggestions could easily be controversial. Although USB-C fragmentation is a real problem, it has been rumored that Apple could move away from Lightning for its smartphones.
We saw how the floor at Cupertino changed. The world's largest consumer tech company is now charging its new MacBooks and iPad Pro devices via USB-C.
We do not yet know which charging standard the EU needs or how Apple is responding to it. Despite what you could read online, Lightning connection on iPhones is a potential target.