Today, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of new legislation that would eventually require all mobile phones sold in the EU to use a USB-C port for wired charging. The proposed rules, which lawmakers reached an initial agreement on back in June, mean that Apple is likely to have to remove the decade-old Lightning connector from its phones and switch to USB-C if it wants to continue selling them in one of its most lucrative global markets.
The EU’s aim is to reduce e-waste. If more devices are interoperable with the same cables, then the EU thinks fewer electronic devices and chargers will get thrown away. According to its estimates, every year, 11,000 tonnes of disposed of and unused chargers end up in landfill, which it hopes these rules will reduce. It also wants to save consumers money by allowing them to reuse chargers (up to €250 million, according to its estimates) and reduce the lock-in effect of proprietary accessories.
The question now is how soon will Apple be forced to make the switch?
The EU’s new rules — which are technically an amendment to its Radio Equipment Directive — are yet to be formally approved. Although they’ve been given the thumbs up by the bloc’s Parliament, the common charger legislation still needs to be signed off by the European Council and published in the EU Official Journal. It would then enter into force 20 days later.
But even once that happens, companies like Apple will still effectively have a two-year grace period that’s designed to ease the transition to a USB-C future. According to the European Parliament’s press release, this means the rules are likely to come into force by the end of 2024. They’ll apply across the industry, regardless of manufacturer. But, as the only major smartphone maker yet to make the switch to USB-C (since 2012, every single iPhone has used a Lightning connector), Apple is the company that’s likely to see the biggest impact.
Apple releases a new flagship smartphone like clockwork in the latter half of every year, so it’s safe to assume that we’ll see a new iPhone (likely to be called the iPhone 16) released around the same time as the rules come into effect in late 2024. But given iPhones are typically launched in September and the EU’s legislation won’t come into effect for 24 months after it’s formally approved by the European Council, the iPhone 16 could end up being launched just before the new rules come into effect. That would make 2025’s iPhone 17 (if Apple continues with its current naming convention) the first model forced to use USB-C for wired charging.
“The new rules would not apply to products placed on the market before”
It’s possible Apple could make the change sooner, but the current rules suggest it won’t, technically, have to. Today’s press release from the European Parliament explicitly states that devices already on the market won’t need to be withdrawn — so if Apple launches a Lightning-port iPhone ahead of the deadline, it can keep selling the phone. “The new rules would not apply to products placed on the market before the date of application,” the press release reads. That’s a change from how the European Parliament was framing the rules back in June, when a spokesperson told The Verge that “there shouldn’t be products on the market that are not compliant” when the regulations come into force, indicating that devices without USB-C ports would need to be removed from sale.
This more forgiving phase in makes it more feasible for Apple to announce and launch a Lightning port-equipped iPhone 16 in 2024, prior to the EU’s new rules coming into effect. But reports suggest it could be preparing to switch to USB-C far earlier. Reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo recently suggested that Apple might be prepared to make the change in 2023 (when it’s likely to release the iPhone 15). Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman is more cautious about the company’s timeframe, however, and recently reported that 2023 is the “earliest” the company might make the change.
Beyond smartphones, the rules will apply to all manner of electronic devices, including tablets, headphones, keyboards, and mice, which means Apple will also need to start offering everything from AirPods to the Magic Mouse with a USB-C port for wired charging. Laptops are also covered by the legislation but have been given a slightly longer implementation period, which means they won’t have to use USB-C for wired charging until early 2026. The EU’s rules also note that small devices like smartwatches or health trackers are exempt “when the small size of the product does not allow [them] to be equipped with [a] USB Type-C receptacle.”
Other devices like tablets, headphones, keyboards, and mice are also impacted
EU product legislation only applies to goods sold in its member states, so it can’t force Apple to switch to USB-C for iPhones sold elsewhere in the world. That means Apple could limit its USB-C iPhones to EU markets or even exit the region entirely if it wants the iPhone to remain Lightning-exclusive. But given the size of the European market as a whole (it made up almost a quarter of Apple’s net sales in its last financial year) and Apple’s emphasis on offering as few versions of its products as possible, it seems likely we’ll see USB-C iPhones sold around the world as a result of the EU’s legislation (the company did not respond to questions about how it plans to comply with the new rules).
If Apple really wanted to avoid adding a Type-C port to its phones, it could eliminate the wired charging port entirely. The rules state that phones must use USB-C for charging “insofar as they are capable of being recharged via wired charging,” which leaves the door open for Apple to remove the wired charging port entirely and offer some kind of hypothetical portless iPhone. That’s something that Bloomberg has reported that the company’s employees have discussed internally in the past, although it’s unclear if these discussions ever got out of the planning stages. The EU is planning similar standardization rules for wireless charging at a later date.
Switching to USB-C could be a tech upgrade for the iPhone
But simpler workarounds to the rules aren’t possible. The wording of the legislation means Apple can’t try to get around them by offering USB-C charging via a detachable adaptor (remember this?) while continuing to equip each iPhone with a Lightning port. The EU’s legislation specifically notes that a USB Type-C port must “remain accessible and operational at all times.” A detachable adapter isn’t going to cut it.
Although it’s been resistant to so far, Apple could have a lot to gain from the switch to USB-C. Over the years, the universal connector has been upgraded to support higher and higher data transfer and charging speeds, with the most recent specifications released by the USB-IF allowing for up to 240W of charging and 80Gbps of data transfer. In contrast, the most recent iPhones reportedly top out at 27W for charging and just 480Mbps for data transfer. No wonder Apple already makes plentiful use of USB-C across its Mac and iPad lineup.
As a proprietary standard, Lightning has given Apple unprecedented control over the accessory market for its phones, but it hasn’t kept pace with the specs of modern cables. When Apple introduced the Lightning port alongside the iPhone 5 in September 2012, Phil Schiller called it “a modern connector for the next decade.” Well, the decade just came to a close, and the EU thinks it’s time for Apple to move on.