USB-C vs Lightning or EU vs Apple's Greed

USB-C vs Lightning or EU vs Apple’s Greed

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Here’s some excellent news in the fight between USB-C vs Lightning. These simple connectors keeping your device plugged in and charged have for years represented the choice between good and, well, evil.

If that sounds a bit too heavy, let me put it this way: the (tech) world is about to get significantly greener and leaner, no thanks to Apple, a company that has for years bragged about how it’s a “green” and “environmentally conscientious” entity.

Sure, and Apple is quite green as a company. However, on the particular subject of getting your phone charged, the company has been on the opposite side. That’s until earlier this month. Not out of its choice.

A week ago, on June 7h, 2022, when I was out on a summer break, the EU’s Parliament and Council negotiators agreed that by “autumn 2024, USB Type-C will become the common charging port for all mobile phones, tablets, and cameras in the EU.”

That means Apple won’t be able to sell the iPhone in the old continent anymore unless the device uses a USB Type-C port instead of its current Lighting port.

It’s been a long journey to get to this point, all due to the real reason Apple has tried so hard to cling to its slow legacy Lightning port.

Dong’s note: I first published this post on Sep 23, 2021, and updated it on June 14, 2022.

USB-C vs Lightning: Here’s an iPhone 5 and its Lightning port and cable next to a USB-C Android counterpart.

USB-C vs Lightning: Apple and its greed

Behind those many Apple events where we heard Tim Cook throwing superlatives, the electronic giant has maintained an unnecessary and wasteful practice: the proprietary Lightning port used exclusively for its popular iPhone (starting with the iPhone 5).

Apple and its fanboys have many reasons why the Lightning port on the iPhone and its cable make sense. Specifically, here are their two main arguments:

1. Apple says moving away from the Lightning port will cause existing users to buy a new cable, creating waste and stifling innovations.

The “waste” notion is kind of true, but it is so for all progress. The transition will take a few years and has already happened once with the iPhone 5. Before that, older iPhone versions used a different port, also proprietary.

(By the way, since when has Apple cared about making its users buy fewer things?)

As for “stifling innovations,” that’s a pile of, well, you name it.

Apple itself started to use USB-C for its 2018 iPad and later. Its Macbook lines have used Thunderbolt, which shares the same USB-C port type for years. And for the iPhone, it’s gone halfway by creating a USB-C to Lightning cable, which makes things even worse.

2. The Lightning cable is superior.

That’s simply not true.

The USB-C port can deliver much faster speeds thanks to USB 3.2, USB4, and Thunderbolt support. Lightning is USB 2.0, which is dated, and super-slow in data and charging rates.

On top of that, the open Lightning connector can be dangerous — you don’t want your children to put it in their mouths when the cable is plugged in.

The iPhone 5 and its Lighting Port (no USB-C)
USB-C vs Lightning: Apple could have moved to USB-C starting with the iPhone if it genuinely believed in being green. Instead, for the past decade, the Lightning port has been a clear example of Apple’s desire to make money at the expense of the environment.

And that brings us to the real reason: Greed and control, or both.

USB is a free open standard, meaning anyone can make a USB cable or port as long as they adhere to the specifications — if not, the device will not work.

On the other hand, Apple charges license fees for any accessories that use its proprietary Lightning port. In other words, every time you pay for a Lightning cable or an accessory that uses this port, Apple likely gets a cut.

And since billions of them exist, a massive chunk of change is coming to Apple’s coffer each year. Additionally, the Lightning port gives Apple complete control over how the iPhone works.

On the flip side, that’s tons and tons of imminent e-waste. On top of that, the practice makes life harder for consumers.

If you have an iPhone and a USB-C device — we all do — you will need to double the number of charging cables (and accessories) at home and on the go.

And Lightning makes life harder for accessory makers, too. They have to create products that support multiple ports instead of just USB-C.

The painful truth is this: had Apple decided to move to USB-C starting with the iPhone 5 (or 6 or 7, or 8), it could have saved the world from those tons of unnecessary waste and resources. Instead, the latest iPhone 13 still uses the Lightning port.

In any case, it’s safe to say nowadays, nobody benefits from or is happy about the Lightning connector except Apple. And that brings us to the latest development in the EU.

USB-C vs Lightning: EU decides to take it no more

September 233, 2021, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, announced a proposal for its revised Radio Equipment Directive that forces electronics and gadget makers to use the USB-C connector universally.

On top of that, it’ll also end the bundling of chargers with devices to reduce waste.

USB-C vs Lightning: The idea behind the European Commission’s revised Radio Equipment Directive

Specifically, at the time, the Commission has proposed:

A harmonised charging port for electronic devices: USB-C will be the common port. This will allow consumers to charge their devices with the same USB-C charger, regardless of the device brand.

Harmonised fast charging technology will help prevent that different producers unjustifiably limit the charging speed and will help to ensure that charging speed is the same when using any compatible charger for a device.

Unbundling the sale of a charger from the sale of the electronic device: consumers will be able to purchase a new electronic device without a new charger. This will limit the number of unwanted chargers purchased or left unused. Reducing production and disposal of new chargers is estimated to reduce the amount of electronic waste by almost a thousand tonnes’ yearly.

Improved information for consumers: producers will need to provide relevant information about charging performance, including information on the power required by the device and if it supports fast charging. This will make it easier for consumers to see if their existing chargers meet the requirements of their new device or help them to select a compatible charger.[…]

These proposed rules apply to smartphones, tablets, headphones, handheld game consoles, and portable speakers.

If you wonder why other products — like smartwatches, earbuds, trackers, etc. — are not part of this, they are too small to have a USB-C port and generally have wireless charging.

And while they apply to all manufacturers, it’s clear that the primary target is Apple. For years, the rest of the world has voluntarily moved to USB-C.

This new initiative is now a done deal. Well, almost.

Technically, we still have to wait until after the summer recess for the Parliament and Council to formally approve the agreement and publish it in the EU Official Journal. It’s now just a matter of formality.

Initially, the European Parliament was expected to vote on this in earlier 2022, but better late than never. The way it works, the law will enter into force 20 days after publication, and its provisions will start to apply after 24 months or in fall 2024.

Apart from the convenience, the new law help provide the consumer with better information on the charging characteristics of new devices and enforce the interoperability of charging solutions, including wireless charging.

Per estimates, the new obligations on the re-use of chargers will help EU consumers save up to 250 million euros a year and cut down some 11,000 tons of annual e-waste.

So, the question is, when can you get a USB-C iPhone? Per the timeline, the iPhone 15 must comply. But we might see this as early as the iPhone 14, due out next year.

Will Apple be able to contain its greed and play nice for a change? That remains to be seen.

The takeaway

To put things in perspective, years ago, I was so distraught by Apple’s refusal of the USB-C that the iPhone 6 was my last iPhone. Since then, we’ve moved to USB-C-only devices in the entire family.

But we have friends that still use the iPhone, and as a group, we all continue to endure that same too familiar frustration — the cable just won’t fit!

But moving to USB-C solo has also made our life much easier — we’ve significantly cut down on the number of cables we need to carry along when traveling — including on our last trip. And at home, the lack of unnecessary frustration is immeasurably pleasant.

On this front, the EU has led the world. Hopefully, that’s enough to take Apple off the greedy path. Who knows, my next phone might be an iPhone again. We’ll probably have to wait till 2024 to see.

In any case, the next time you pick up that dreadful Lightning cable, remember how that piece of unnecessary e-waste is entirely on Apple.

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