Single charger for smartphones: the oukaze launched by Brussels against Apple

With the speed that we know, the European bureaucracy has just committed a new essential technological edict with the imposition of the USB type C connector for all mobile devices that will be marketed from 2024. This concerns primarily chargers and also the accessories that are added to a telephone.

In fact, it is above all a fatwa launched against Apple, the pet peeve of Brussels (along with Google). It must be said that over the past twenty years, Cupertino engineers have abused proprietary accessories. Witness the drawers filled with obsolete connectors. Many iPhone or iPad users got annoyed in 2012 when Apple introduced the Lightning connector on its devices which was faster, more compact and more reliable than its predecessor. Incidentally, Apple has created a large captive market by selling and licensing compatible products. This is a fabulous income: a cable sold for 35 euros under the Apple brand is worth between 0.5 and 1.5 dollars from a Chinese wholesaler. Even if the made in Apple is of better quality, we are talking here about margins of 80 to 90%, compared to around 40% on an iPhone. And last year, when Apple decided to remove the charger and the earphones from its packaging, analysts estimated the savings thus achieved at $6.5 billion. The main motive was to steer users first towards wireless chargers and earphones – it sells a million AirPods a day. But the official reason was to reduce the environmental footprint of these accessories.

In Brussels too, the environment has a good back. In addition to the (valid) argument of standardization for the benefit of the consumer, the Commission invokes the impact on the production of electronic waste. The effort is modest: the generalization of the USB-C connector will result in a reduction of 1,000 tons in the annual production of computer waste, for a total production of… 50 million tons. Any initiative on reparability or planned obsolescence would have an unparalleled scale.

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“Apple doesn’t care”

Is it the role of the European Commission to define the standards for a telephone socket? This makes sense from the standpoint of consumer protection and fair market access. The problem is that the Commission is not synchronized with the rate of evolution of the market. Brussels’ action is measured in years, which is acceptable for industry or services. Not for electronics which needs to iterate very quickly according to technological developments and whose specifications are complex and changing. The USB-3 port was designed in 2010 and introduced in 2013; would it have been necessary to legislate to generalize it at European level? Certainly not. This would have delayed the transition to USB type C, the design of which was only finalized in 2014 and which continues to evolve. Legislation would have dissuaded manufacturers from investing in the legally not yet authorized type C.

As for Apple, he pretends to be indignant in the face of legislation which, he says, threatens his capacity for innovation. That’s partly true, as its Lightning connector was actually years ahead of the USB-C standard. But it is also correct that Apple could have made the transition to the market standard two or three years ago (which it did on its Macs and on certain iPad models).

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In fact, Apple doesn’t care. He innovates to his rhythm. It puts its devices on the market with metronomic regularity and globalized staging. Success follows. Still. For twenty years, Apple has remained indifferent to the pressure of competition. For the simple reason that with 1.5 billion devices running iOS in circulation, it controls the innovation of the sector. The edict of Brussels will not change anything in the deployment of its roadmap, which has two stages: first the adoption of USB-C, which is imminent on the iPhone; then the transition to a complete removal of all connectors in favor of wireless chargers and finally fast and reliable Bluetooth. As usual, Apple is certain that it can develop technology that exceeds market standards. After all, he has just demonstrated his ability to do so on a much more critical and complex element: the microprocessor which is at the heart of his machines.


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Dominique Reynié, here on December 6, 2015, is a university professor at Sciences Po and Managing Director of the Foundation for Political Innovation.By Dominique Reynié, University Professor at Sciences Po and Managing Director of the Foundation for Political Innovation

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