How new EU rules on standard USB ports could upset tech giants

Publish date: 2023-11-03

Author: Diane Scally

How new EU rules on standard USB ports could upset tech giants

Proposals for a new directive for the standardisation of USB charging ports throughout the EU were agreed. If the recommendations become law, it will mean that the majority of small electronic devices, including; smartphones, tablets, headphones, digital cameras and handheld games consoles, will all have to be manufactured with a USB-C port to be able to use a universal charging cable.

The idea behind the initiative is primarily an environmental one, with research suggesting that the new rules could cut down on around 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually from the disposal of incompatible chargers and devices, as well as saving consumers up to 250 million euros per year on ‘unnecessary charger purchases’. 

An additional purpose of the proposed legislation would be to standardise ‘fast-charging’ speeds so that all devices can achieve the same charge rate.

The EU is aiming to introduce the new rules around the autumn of 2024, after which time devices will need to have a built-in USB-C port for charging, ruling out the option of a plug-in ‘dongle’ converter, presumably because this would not only create more hardware rather than helping to reduce the amount, but it would also somewhat undermine the spirit of the legislation by allowing companies who use alternative USB types to continue to manufacture bespoke ports and cables.

Presently, the proposal still needs to be approved by the European Council and European Parliament before it becomes law, which is anticipated around the beginning of September this year. This would give manufacturers approximately two years to comply. 

However, an exception will be allowed for laptops due to the sort of specialist high-wattage USB-C chargers they need. Laptop manufacturers will be given an extra 16 months to prepare for the changes until around the start of 2026.

What does it mean for Apple and their ‘Lightning’ Connector?

Perhaps understandably, Apple is not thrilled by this news. Always striving to be unique, Apple has championed their ‘Lightning’ ports and chargers in their products, but this now makes them the only major smartphone manufacturer to use a proprietary port instead of a USB-C. With around 56 million i-phones sold in Europe in 2021, it is easy to see why they are concerned.

The rule change would mean a complete overhaul of the i-phone and other related Apple products to accommodate the USB-C port while simultaneously rendering older versions useless and devoid of any resale value throughout the EU. The new rules state that “there shouldn’t be products on the market that are not compliant”, meaning that Apple may want to consider making the change sooner rather than later to allow for the sale of the outstanding stock of older models at a lower price even when new versions are released in the future.

Aside from the new rules being problematic for manufacturing Apple’s existing products, the company has other reservations too. In a recent interview with the BBC, Apple commented that they “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”. They also added that they aim to make every Apple device and usage carbon neutral by 2030, suggesting that they don’t see the EU’s proposal as the only way to combat environmental issues relating to e-waste.

However, there may be an argument that the new rules could inadvertently encourage innovation rather than stifle innovation. Maybe not in the way Apple suggests concerning developing different types of charging ports but perhaps through accelerating the development of wireless charging technology to do away with the USB compatibility issue entirely and make the whole issue moot. 

There is still much work to be done in this area, especially as charging pads also need a cable. Still, they may be exempt from the new rules, which would allow a grace period for developing further technology to resolve current wireless charging issues. In turn, there could be another unexpected side benefit of this in the form of new tech developer jobs, which may be created specifically to work on the hardware and software needed to move wireless technology forward.

For the time being though, we will have to wait and see if the proposals are passed as law in September and whether other countries worldwide will follow suit. Currently, the UK government has stated that such rules would not be implemented in the UK. However, it could apply to Northern Ireland under current post-Brexit arrangements. If other regions around the globe also decide to go ahead with similar legislation, the UK may be persuaded to change their rules too. Watch this space for updates.