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BRUSSELS — Made by Apple. Designed — at least in part — by Eurocrats.
The Cupertino, California-based tech giant is expected to present its new iPhone 15 — including more expensive variations — in a much-anticipated product launch Tuesday night. According to leaks ahead of the reveal, the iPhones are expected to use Apple’s first new charging technology in more than a decade: They will feature a USB-C charging port, instead of Apple’s proprietary Lightning solution.
It’s an adaptation that Apple was pressured into after European Union rules will require smartphones and other electronic devices to have a USB-C port by the end of 2024 at the latest. Apple has vehemently pushed back against the rule change in the past, saying it would stifle innovation.
The port switch ends more than a decade of arm-wrestling between the EU and Apple over the company’s most lucrative — and ubiquitous — product. It proves the EU can compel even the world’s most valuable tech company to fall in line, just when it’s taking on other aspects of the iPhone — such as the sealed-off operating system — through its digital competition rulebook.
Charging toward change
The road to the iPhone’s USB-C port has been long, some in Brussels admit.
Alex Agius Saliba, a Maltese social democrat who led the work on the common charger file, recalls how Apple executives were “nearly laughing at us” when lawmakers brought up the issue during a visit to the iPhone manufacturer about three years ago.
“They were totally brushing us off when it comes to the common charger, not even replying to us,” he told POLITICO in an interview ahead of the iPhone launch.
An Apple spokesperson declined to comment on speculation before the launch.
The bloc’s effort to tackle citizens’ drawers full of oddball chargers and cables initially tried a familiar tack: Since 2009, it’s tried to lure Apple and other smartphone manufacturers toward a harmonized charging solution by encouraging voluntary industry agreements.
While such agreements cut back on fragmentation in charging methods, they still allowed for proprietary technology. Apple emerged as the key hold-out with its Lightning technology.
In September 2021, the European Commission moved ahead with presenting its proposed binding rules, mandating a USB-C port for smartphones, tablets and a range of other devices — citing consumer convenience and the need to cut down on electronic waste. A common charger is “common sense,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said in a blog post Saturday, emphasizing the need for such rules.
A bigger market effect
When assessing the proposal, EU lawmakers — who had already called for such binding rules in 2020 — expanded the scope, to include even more devices, like laptops.
The EU’s common charger rules have the potential to set a global standard, Saliba argued, much like the EU’s data protection rules that rolled out in 2018. “It’s a big win, not only for European consumers, but I think that the message is also resonating in other continents.”
Because of the complexity of tech supply chains, it’s not appealing for a smartphone brand to manufacture different phones for different markets. And the sheer size of the bloc’s potential consumer base means its regulations have consequences for other markets.
But newer charging solutions mean the EU’s rule change influence could potentially be muted. The bloc’s rules touch upon only wired charging, while all manufacturers, Apple included, have since been rolling out wireless charging options.
In response, EU legislators have urged the Commission to come up with a standard for wireless charging by the end of next year.
Another concern is the effect on the market for refurbished devices. Only second-hand devices that were placed on the EU market before the rules went into force will still be allowed to be resold, said Augustin Becquet, president of Eurefas, which represents companies in the refurbishment industry.
“In order to have a healthy source of supply and build capacity for our sector, we need to consider sourcing outside of EU borders,” Becquet said in a statement shared with POLITICO, alluding to second-hand devices from non-EU markets no longer being allowed into the EU for resale from the end of next year.
The debate over refurbished devices suggests the charging debate will drag on, even after Apple’s announcement. But for now, a sizeable influence is embodied in a rather tiny hole.
“Now, we are seeing something that is tangible,” Saliba concluded.