An iPhone without Lightning is inevitable, but Apple’s stalling for time

Apple may be forced to ditch the iPhone’s proprietary Lightning port in the coming years, as European lawmakers have reached a deal on legislation that would oblige all portable tech to use USB-C for wired charging. But while Apple has pushed back against the proposed laws, the regulatory push shouldn’t be a surprise for the iPhone-maker.

The European Union has been campaigning for a common charging connector for more than a decade, finally announcing its intention to legislate in September last year. And for almost as long, Apple has been using its Lightning port, which it introduced for the iPhone 5 in 2012.

Meanwhile, USB-C has been adopted by virtually every other phone, as well as most laptops, tablets, headphones and other gadgets. The open standard passes through more data and power than Lightning, allowing for faster transfers and charging as well as high-resolution video and compatibility with everything from cameras to hard drives. Even Apple has long since adopted USB-C on its iPads and MacBooks. So why is it reluctant to do so on iPhone?

Apple’s stated reason for opposing the EU’s rules is that it doesn’t think regulators should have this kind of say over design. It claims that making everybody use USB-C would stifle innovation, and rejects the EU’s suggestion that a common standard would reduce e-waste.

But Lightning is a proprietary Apple technology, so switching to USB-C could cost the company a measure of control and income. Apple currently regulates the quality of accessories and cables through its Made For iPhone program. Through MFi, device-makers pay a commission to Apple for the right to produce Lightning adapters or docks or chargers. Moving to an open standard like USB-C could hurt that business, and also remove Apple’s oversight on the kinds of things plugging in to iPhones.

But according to analyst Foad Fadaghi, managing director at research firm Telsyte, the EU’s rules should result in a better outcome for everyone, and Apple likely knows that. It just doesn’t want regulators dictating its timelines.

Apple decided to stop developing the Lightning connector a long time ago. In some ways, for Apple, it was inevitable that they would be looking at another connection type, he said.

If you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars a year [in MFi licensing], then certainly it makes sense to do the court cases. But I think even Apple would think it’s inevitable, given that most of their products have moved to USB-C anyway.

The EU is expected to give formal approval to the laws in the coming months, with the deadline for compliance being mid-2024. However, while the laws would only compel companies to stick to USB-C in the European single market, Fadaghi said Apple would likely make the change globally if it hadn’t already planned to do so, which could have some positive effects.

The EU’s intention is to reduce costs, reduce environmental impact, and improve ease of use for the general public, regardless of what platform they use, he said.

And Apple is certainly playing catch up when it comes to connectivity of its handheld devices with peripherals and third-party devices. Android and other devices have been doing it for a long time.

That’s not to say Apple would entirely give up on licensing proprietary connections or charting its own course when it comes to charging.

Rumours of a portless iPhone have been swirling for years, and only intensified after 2020 when Apple introduced the iPhone version of MagSafe. This ring of magnets on the back of the phone makes wireless charging a more plug-like experience, while also offering another avenue for licensed MFi products; everything from cases and wallets to Pop Sockets and car mounts have been made with MagSafe.

A phone that only charges by wireless induction is definitely possible, and may avoid the EU’s regulation which only refers to devices that charge via cable. And users would be free to use open standard Qi chargers, instead Apple’s MagSafe.

But it also means the device would need to rely on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for data transfer, which is a problem for things like recovering broken phones, developing software or testing device functions, at least without a separate service port.

So, with two years to go until the EU deadline, Apple has options. It could expedite a USB-C iPhone and take credit for the broader compatibility it brings, take its time with Lightning and aim for a gradual changeover, or hold out for as long as possible until it finds a way to avoid cables entirely and deliver a truly wireless iPhone.

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