The mobile phone battery is the scourge of the modern world. Its short lifespan makes us desperately look for the charger when it is running out of juice. And it almost drives us up the wall when we can’t find the correct plug. This is particularly annoying for iPhone users: their devices can only be charged with Apple charger plugs. One wonders why?
The answer can be found in Brussels. As a matter of fact, the EU Commission has wanted to introduce a standardized charger for all mobile phones for a decade. However, Apple prevents this by lobbying, as shown by emails and memos of the Commission published on netzpolitik.org. For Apple, the iPhone is the perfect cash cow. In the last quarter of 2018 alone, their smartphones generated 52 billion US-Dollars for the company. Apple likes to surround its products with an aura of luxury and exclusivity - and makes money out of additional equipment. The special strategy has consequences because according to estimates of the Commission, old chargers produce more than 51,000 tons of electronic waste per year. A standard could make chargers reusable more easily. This would reduce the waste mountain and save consumers money.
In 2009, the then Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, Günter Verheugen for the first time announced a standardised charger. In doing so, Europe would become an example to the world, said Verheugen. Ten years ago, there were 30 different chargers on the market. Verheugen urged the industry to voluntarily agree on one standard. And indeed: within two years, all manufacturers switched to the Micro USB plug, which is still used in most mobile phones. All manufacturers but one: pressured by Apple, the declaration of intent of the industry contained a loophole. It allows a separate connection for charging cables if the manufacturer provides an adapter for it. This undermines the voluntary obligation, as the adapters cost extra and produce additional electronic waste.
Since 2012, Apple has equipped its mobile phones with a new connection. “Lightning” is a patent owned by Apple - anybody producing chargers for it, has to pay license fees to the company. Efforts by the Commission to convince Apple to voluntarily switch to a common standard, have failed. Apple argued in Brussels that a common standard would require the iPhone to be completely redesigned. This would hamper the innovation of the company’s products.
EU officials regard this as an excuse: “Independent of their charger, all high-end mobile phones and portable devices (including Apple’s) are of comparable size and performance”.
As a Commission official remarked, it is obvious that market itself refutes the alleged risks and costs of hampered innovation. A Directive, adopted in 2014, provides the Commission with the option to intervene directly via delegated act and to stipulate a standard. In spite of this, the Commission continues to insist on a voluntary obligation of the industry.
So far, pressure from Parliament did not provide much help either. Instead of taking action, EU Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska commissioned an impact assessment in autumn 2018. Its result will only be available after Bieńkowska has left the Commission. Consumer protectors regard this as insufficient. “Impact assessments and studies should not serve as a fig leaf to delay decisions”, is the criticism voiced by Frederico Da Silva of the European Consumer Organisation BEUC. “What we need now is the political will to solve the problem”. However, even ten years after the Commission’s first proposal, there will be - for the foreseeable future at least - no standardized charger for mobile phones in sight.