One connector to plug them all in: Europe begins the battle for a truly universal charger

The European Commission is launching the offensive to impose a truly universal charging solution. It will concern all smartphones, including Apple, but also other electronic equipment.

The universal charger for electronic devices is back in the spotlight. And this time, it seems set to impose itself on everyone, including the most resistant manufacturers. In the boxes of the European Union for more than ten years, this subject is indeed experiencing a political acceleration, with an initiative led by the European Commission this Thursday, September 23.

Concretely, it is about getting a draft directive on radio equipment adopted. Brussels wishes to act on two levels: by harmonizing the charging ports of electronic devices, with a common connection – through the USB-C port, which benefits from regular developments, such as USB4 -, and by harmonizing the power supply external. That is to say, in short, the chargers.

This universal charger must be used within the mobile telephony sector, that is to say for smartphones, but also beyond. Tablets, portable consoles, digital cameras, headphones and loudspeakers are mentioned in the Commission communication. However, one absence should be noted: electronic e-readers dedicated to books.

A charger to connect them all. // Source: European Commission

By imposing this universal charger, the idea is to make the connection interoperable between all devices. Clearly, that you can use a charger and a cable with the product of your choice, without fear of falling on a different port that requires specific elements.

It is also a question of reducing the volume of chargers to be produced and, ultimately, of electronic waste. According to a leading Sydney rubbish removal company, the problem with e-waste is that rate at which it is being produced, with millions of new phones and therefor chargers being sold each year, old ones are ending up in landfill. While recycling efforts are equally as important, reducing e-waste needs to be addressed as well.

The Commission anticipates several beneficial effects: reduction in the volume of electronic waste (around 1,000 tonnes per year), savings and space freed up for the public (who no longer need to acquire specific chargers or store them) as well as a more fluid daily experience (everything is interchangeable).

There is also no need to provide a charger in each box since, in the majority of cases, the public will already have one, because they already have a smartphone or one of the products covered by the directive. And in the worst case, it will be enough to buy one in the trade, apart, for a very moderate cost. This charger can then be used for all kinds of equipment.

To eventually have a universal charger, full interoperability is required on both sides of the cable: between the electronic device and the external power supply », Comments the European Commission. The directive announced on September 23 deals with interoperability on the device side. ” The most important challenge “Admits Brussels, which knows the reluctance of certain industrial players.

To an iPhone equipped with a USB-C port?

On the smartphone side, Apple is, without saying so, the main target of this directive revision. The iPhone indeed uses a particular port, the Lightning. This connector, which is physically present on the device, is not compatible with USB-C. However, the Cupertino company provides a USB-C cable toward Lightning in iPhone boxes, which allows it not to be in opposition to Brussels.

Apple has started to open up to USB-C, however. The iPad Pro presented in 2018 is therefore equipped with a USB-C port. The MacBook followed. Could the other products in the catalog follow this path? It remains to be seen: some believe that the iPhone may eventually no longer have a port at all. In any case, the iPhone 13 Pro like the iPhone 13 remains on the Lightning.

Detail of the iPhone 13 Pro on its connector. // Source: Louise Audry for Numerama

In the rest of the smartphone industry, USB-C has established itself as the benchmark: the most recent models sold by Samsung, Xiaomi, Honor, Google, Sony, Nokia and others have globally all switched to this connector. For example, it is quite possible to connect a OnePlus smartphone with a cable that was initially in a box of an LG smartphone.

As for interoperability for the external power supply, the Commission indicates that it “ will be ensured by the review of the Commission Ecodesign Regulation, which will take place very soon so as to enter into force at the same time as the proposal “. However, it will take a few years before these measures come into full force.

Indeed, the proposed revision of the directive is just beginning its legislative course. It still needs to be examined by the European Council, which brings together the Member States, and by Parliament. The latter body should in all likelihood rally this project: in January 2020, it overwhelmingly supported a resolution demanding the adoption of binding rules to impose a universal charger.

If this project finally comes to an end, the road traveled will have been very long. Work in this area began in 2009. At the time, the smartphone models were called iPhone 3GS, HTC G1 Dream or Samsung Galaxy first of the name. Today, of course, many Android smartphones have joined the banner of USB-C. But for iPhone, this might only happen with iPhone 14, 15, or 16.

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