At Last, Your Chargers Will Match

My friends with iPhones let me hang out with them even though I’m an Android guy. (Generous of them, I know.) Our technological differences mean there are certain rifts between us: green bubbles in iMessage, my inability to FaceTime, and, crucially, the incompatibility of our phone ports. Although Androids come in many shapes and sizes – some of them even fold in half – they all have something in common: the small round hole that the charging cable fits into.

The vast majority of Android phones use USB Type-C cables for charging, as do many newer wireless headphones, video game controllers, and laptops. Some desk lamps, portable fans, and electric razors will do the same. That little charging port is everywhere, a rare technological consensus in a world otherwise defined by a million different apps and setups – sure, you might have a hard time use a new gizmo, but at least you’ll know how to connect it. The iPhone, however, uses something called Lightning, a proprietary design introduced by Apple a decade ago as a replacement for another Apple-only connector: the super-wide 30-pin connector you might recognize from your dusty old iPod. Oddly enough, the phone is now the only major Apple product that doesn’t support USB-C charging. The basic iPad transitioned last month and the MacBook years ago — even newer MacBook models with a “MagSafe” connector can still be juiced up via their USB-C ports.

And so the iPhone stands alone. It’s annoying – so annoying, in fact, that the European Union has decided to intervene. It recently passed rules that will see Apple transition to USB-C: “By the end of 2024, all mobile phones, tablets and cameras in the EU will have to be equipped with a USB Type-C charging port,” the European Parliament said in a press release.

Apple “has to comply,” Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, said in an interview last month The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t say definitively that the change will apply outside of Europe (and a spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment) – but it’s hard to imagine Apple, a company primarily obsessed with clean design, having two different versions developed its flagship product. USB-C will almost certainly be the only cable capable of charging anything, including iPhone, at some point in the next two years. Finally harmony.

That’s nice, because USB-C is actually superior in a few important ways. For one, it can charge phones faster, and it’s also faster when transferring data. And like Lightning, these cables have the same connector on each end, so you don’t have to figure out which end goes into the charger and which end goes into the phone, and neither end can be flipped upside down.

But more often than not, USB-C is useful simply because it’s a standard. “We all have too many cables lying around and frustration trying to find the right one,” said Justin Brookman, director of technology policy at consumer reports. “It’s confusing, it’s frustrating and the market hasn’t adequately resolved it.”

Why did it take Apple so long to make the change? Finally, the company is a board member of the USB Implementers Forum, the non-profit organization that promotes and supports the USB standard. In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Joswiak indicated that there are technical reasons for maintaining Lightning. Perhaps this is the case from Apple’s point of view: the cable is equipped with a built-in chip that Apple uses to enforce a lucrative licensing program. Companies that make Lightning cables have to join Apple’s $99-a-year MFi program and then pay Apple an undisclosed license fee for its products. Apple won’t get this cut when the iPhone moves to USB-C because the company doesn’t own that standard.

Joswiak also mentioned in the interview that more than a billion people are currently using Lightning cables and that it would be “greener” if they could keep using them. It’s true that electronic obsolescence will never help the planet, but change is inevitable. At least here, Apple will switch to a standard that many already have. (They certainly do if they have other recent Apple products.) For its part, the EU argues that the switch will reduce waste as consumers will be able to use one charger for all their devices.

Of course there is the elephant in the room – or a tangle of cables, which at least looks like it. People embrace new technologies unevenly. On my desk right now I have four different types of USB cables for connecting to various legacy devices, along with various dongles for connecting legacy USB Type-A cables to USB Type-C. What can I say, another cable isn’t going to come along and replace USB-C, taking us right back to where we started? In fact, the plug is almost a decade old.

EU policy allows some flexibility if the next cable – USB-D? – rolls around: “Any technological development in wired charging can be reflected in a timely adjustment of the technical requirements/specific standards under the Radio Equipment Directive”, notes the Commission. It’s an extremely Eurocratic way of saying, ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we reach it.’ It’s not likely to happen any time soon. USB-C’s design can support advances in the larger USB technology protocol, which means the small connector in all of these new devices should have the right shape for years to come – the perfect fit for me and my iPhone-owning friends.