EU forces Google and Apple to adopt common USB-C charger, setting global standard

Harnessing its digital strength, the European Union this month forced a major shift for the global tech industry, after giving up hope that companies would choose to change on their own.

In early October, the European Parliament in Brussels voted to impose a single, uniform charger for every smartphone, camera and video game console manufactured in the 27 EU countries or sold to its 450 million inhabitants. That means tech companies will have to produce countless millions of items, including Google’s Android phones and Apple’s iPhones, with USB-C ports, or, by 2024, stop selling them on the market. largest consumer market in the world. By spring 2026, laptops will also fall under the law. This, says EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, “is an important step to increase convenience and reduce waste”.

It’s also the culmination of more than a decade of wrangling between Big Tech and the EU, in some ways making the “common charger” law a political end around the industry.

For years, EU officials in Brussels have tried to coax Apple, Motorola, Nokia and others into agreeing on a uniform port for devices, allowing people to finally get rid of the mountain of cables. that accumulate in offices and homes, or are dumped in landfills. The EU estimates that cables account for around 51,000 of the region’s more than 4 million tonnes of electrical waste each year, generated from items such as discarded household appliances and electronics.

In some ways, the EU’s pleas have worked: from dozens of different chargers a decade ago, the tech industry has whittled its ports down to a few standard ports.

But for years Apple has pushed back on calls from Brussels to replace the Lightning charger – a port unique to Apple devices like iPhones and iPads – and has spent millions lobbying European officials against plans for common chargers from the EU. The company rolled out its first Lightning port in 2012, three years after signing a non-binding agreement with the EU, as well as other companies, to make smartphones with a standard mini-USB connection. Just weeks before the EU vote on October 4, Apple released the iPhone 14, which features a Lightning connector. (Google’s new Pixel 7 phone, released on Thursday, comes with a USB-C port.)

For consumers, the need for a common charger seems obvious. “There are miles of cables in every house,” says Andrey Kovachev, a Bulgarian member of the European Parliament, who helped oversee common charger legislation he has been fighting for since his first election in 2009. “J I have three children, and they are playing next to me at the moment with a video game and a charger that is very different from all the rest,” he said Thursday by telephone from Brussels. “Everyone has 20 or 30 cables at home,” he says. “It’s best to have two or three equal cables to use with your phone, camera, player, keyboard, and laptop.”

But Kovachev says European politicians have finally given up expecting Big Tech to accept that. “Some producers tried to convince us that it would hinder R&D and innovation, and that it should be left to the market,” he says. “After more than 10 years of waiting for voluntary industry action, we felt it was high time to introduce the law.” The European Parliament passed the common charger rule with overwhelming support, in a vote of 602 to 13. Tech companies did not react to the decision.

And yet, while the move appears to benefit consumers, some critics view the common charger as insignificant, compared to more serious technology challenges in Europe.

The EU’s hesitant attempts to compete with the United States and China on investments in crucial technologies, such as battery production, cloud services and space travel, are particularly worrying. A report last year from the Foundation for Information Technology and Innovation in Washington found that the EU also lags far behind in AI, with much more investment and venture capital. weaker in the sector than the United States or China.

“SpaceX launches several rockets this year, and Ariane [France’s commercial space rocket company Arianespace] hardly has any, but in the meantime we have the common charger,” says André Loesekrug-Pietri, president of the Joint European Disruptive Initiative, or JEDI, a Paris-based organization that aims to launch large-scale technology projects in Europe. He calls the efforts of European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton to pass a common law on shippers “a complete error of judgment on what is important”.

But Kovachev says EU laws – like other measures – inevitably have a global impact, as tech companies are forced to change their products. This gives the decisions taken in Brussels an importance far beyond Europe. He believes the USB-C port will “become a global benchmark” for technology devices, much like the Global System for Mobile Communications, or GSM, the technology developed by Europe for the first mobile phones. Europe rolled out GSM in the early 1990s, and it has been widely adopted around the world.

Yet in the end, European mobile phone makers Nokia and Eriksson were eclipsed by giants elsewhere like Huawei and Apple. And even if tech companies adopt USB-C as the standard for devices, Europe could again struggle to gain a foothold in the global digital cable market. “It will not be produced in the EU,” says Loesekrug-Pietri. “It will be produced in China and Taiwan.”

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