EU to impose universal smartphone charger in blow to Apple

Aim is to have a common charging port for mobile phones, tablets and headphones

iPhone chargers are under threat after EU decision to create one universal charger. Reuters
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The European Union set itself on a collision course with tech giant Apple on Thursday after saying it intends to impose a single, universal charger for smartphones, tablets and headphones.

Chargers will also be sold separately from electronic devices.

It would spell the end for Apple’s widely used iPhone connector cable.

The move has been more than 10 years in the making, with the European Union executive touting environmental benefits and €250 million ($293m) in annual savings for users.

The EU executive will revise its eco-design regulation in the near future so that the external power supply is interoperable, which is the last step for a common charge.

The proposal needs the green light from EU countries and lawmakers, after which companies will have two years to adapt their devices.

The European Commission believes a standard cable for all devices will cut back on electronic waste, but Apple says a one-size fits all charger will stop innovation and create more pollution.

The Commission said it is not targeting Apple and only acted because companies were not able to agree on a common solution despite a decade of talks, which have reduced the number of mobile phone chargers to three from 30.

The EU is a massive market of 450 million people, and the imposition of the USB-C as a cable standard could have a decisive effect on the global smartphone market.

“European consumers have been frustrated long enough about incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers,” said Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for a Europe fit for the Digital Age (Competition).

“We gave industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions, now the time is ripe for legislative action for a common charger,” she said.

The Commission said the typical person living in the EU owns at least three chargers, and uses two regularly, but 38 per cent of people report not being able to charge their phones at least once because they cannot find a compatible charger. Some 420 million mobile phones or portable electronic devices were sold in the EU last year.

“Chargers power all our most essential electronic devices. With more and more devices, more and more chargers are sold that are not interchangeable or not necessary. We are putting an end to that,” Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, said. “With our proposal, European consumers will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics — an important step to increase convenience and reduce waste.”

iPhone and Android users have long complained about using different chargers for their phones.

Consumers currently have to decide between three main chargers to power their phones: Lightning ones for Apple handsets, micro-USB ones widely used on most other mobile phones, and USB-C ones that are increasingly being used.

That range is much simpler than in 2009, when dozens of different types of chargers were bundled with mobile phones, creating piles of electronic rubbish when users changed brands.

The EU said the current situation remained “inconvenient” and that European consumers spent approximately €2.4 billion ($2.8bn) annually on stand-alone chargers that do not come with their electronic devices.

Apple, which already uses USB-C connectors on some of its iPads and laptop computers, insists legislation to force a universal charger for all mobiles in the European Union is unwarranted.

“We remain concerned that strict regulation mandating just one type of connector stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, which in turn will harm consumers in Europe and around the world,” Apple said.

The Commission had long defended a voluntary agreement it made with the device industry that was set in place in 2009 and saw a big reduction in cables, but Apple refused to abide by it.

In the Commission's proposal, which could yet be considerably changed before ratification, smartphone makers will be given a 24-month transition period, giving “ample time” for companies to fall in line, it said.

Apple said it believed the two-year transition period would be a major worry for the industry as it could prevent the sale of existing equipment.

The move would affect phones, tablets, digital cameras, hand-held video game consoles, headsets and headphones sold in the EU.

Updated: September 23, 2021, 1:11 PM