When do laptops share a common charger?

How Apple imposes its cables on us

In the summer of ten years, Europe wanted to become a role model for the world. "We believe that this new European initiative will trigger a global domino effect," said Günther Verheugen, then EU Industry Commissioner, in June 2009. Verheugen suggests creating a uniform charger for all smartphones. This is more convenient for cell phone owners and saves tons of electronic waste. A nice, simple solution.

But one group has been throwing a line in Europe for a decade: Apple is vehemently opposed to a standard for charging cables and power supply units. Through clever lobbying, the Californians prevent having to bow to European norms - until today.

Apple is a heavyweight in Brussels. The group spends one million euros a year on its stakeholders and sits in influential lobby groups. Apple's people in Brussels convinced the EU Commission for ten years not to create any mandatory rules for chargers.

Promise of a connector revolution

It's 2009. Almost every manufacturer sells their cell phones with their own plug. There are more than 30 different chargers on the market that are not compatible with each other. If you want to charge your mobile phone, you have to carry your charger with you and you can't just use the one from friends or colleagues. The EU Commission sees a need for action. Not even one in ten people has a smartphone in their pocket yet. In Brussels they want to create a standard connection before the new technology finally spreads.

The EU Commission estimates that old chargers produce more than 51,000 tons of electronic waste a year. The number could be reduced if all cell phones use the same device. This is good for the environment and more convenient for consumers: a win-win situation.

For Apple, it's about its flagship. The iPhone is the Group's most important product: Apple earned around 52 billion US dollars with it in the last quarter of 2018 alone. Around every sixth cell phone sold in Europe today is an iPhone. Apple makes good money with its own patented charging cables.

The Apple campaign can be traced back to documents from the Commission. In response to inquiries from netzpolitik.org and a member of parliament regarding the EU's Freedom of Information Act, the EU authority published 150 e-mails, memos and reports. They show the failed attempts for a uniform charger.

Download all documents here.

EU Commission: Companies should decide for themselves

The EU Commission has relied on voluntariness from the start. Manufacturers should find a solution themselves and choose a standard. The Commission does not want to hinder innovation by making companies precise regulations on plugs, says an official who has been working on the subject for years and wants to remain anonymous. The Commission sees it similarly to this day. The Commission is also building on self-regulation in other areas, for example in the fight against disinformation.

When it comes to the common charger, the corporations quickly find a simple solution: One plug for all devices based on micro-USB. In June 2009 ten manufacturers, including the market leaders Nokia, Samsung and Apple, signed a joint letter of intent. They vow to set a standard for power supply units and charging cables.

The declaration of intent is at least half a success: almost all major manufacturers swerve in a short time. In future, chargers will be separated into power packs and cables. As of 2011, most new cell phones can be charged with micro-USB.

But one exception remains: Apple. Although the company is introducing USB power supply units, it refuses to create a plug connector for micro USB in its cell phones.

Advertising for half a success

The Commission still sells it as a profit: Verheugen's successor as Industry Commissioner, the Italian Antonio Tajani, celebrated the result as “good news for European consumers” in a performance with lobbyist Bridget Cosgrave from the industry association DigitalEuropa.

The commission even produced promotional videos in five languages ​​to celebrate the outcome. "Today there is a uniform charger that can be used to charge different cell phones from different manufacturers," says the spokesman in the German version of the video. "A standardized charger makes life easier."

The only flaw: Apple doesn't think so. In response to pressure from Apple, the manufacturers added a passage to the letter of intent. This allows you to use your own cable for chargers if the manufacturer offers an additional adapter. However, these adapters cost extra and create additional electrical waste. In this way, Apple undermines the self-commitment of companies from the start.

Apple's lightning strikes

Apple is continuing its strategy. At the end of 2012, the group announced a connection called Lightning for its new iPhone 5. The new plug has been installed in all iPhones since then. Lightning is an Apple patent that can only be used with the Group's consent - a declaration of war on the idea of ​​a common standard.

The EU Commission is silent on Lightning. In Brussels, the common charger is becoming more and more embarrassing. Industry representatives declare the matter to be over in 2013. In a letter, EU Commissioner Tajani indicates no further need for action. However, he can no longer be photographed with chargers in hand.

Behind closed doors, his officials express dissatisfaction: Apple is formally adhering to the letter of intent, but it “gives the impression among parts of the public and some members of parliament” that Apple is ignoring its promises. This was what a commission official said, according to the notes to lobbyists.

A firewall against regulation

The following years Apple stonewalled. The group argues against the commission that the iPhone would have to be completely redesigned for a common standard. That hinders the innovation of his products.

EU officials think this is an excuse. “Regardless of the charger, all high-end cell phones and portable devices (including Apple's) are comparable in size and performance. Therefore, the alleged risks and costs of hindered innovation are clearly being refuted by the market itself, ”a Commission official noted before a meeting with Apple.

Connoisseurs see it similarly. It is already possible that Apple will have to redesign the iPhone in order to switch to the common standard, said the technology journalist Johannes Schuster, who has been reporting on Apple at Heise for years. "But they do that every year anyway."

For Apple, it's about the money. Chargers are included with new iPhones. But if a customer has to buy one, it quickly becomes expensive. The group sells Lightning cables in its own shop for 25 euros each, and the same amount is charged for the cheapest power supply or an adapter from micro-USB to Lightning. With the replacement charger or the second cable for the office, Apple earns a lot more.

The own plug also fits into Apple's philosophy: The brand should stand out and stand out from others. Customers pay a price for this.

Sharp sword, blunt will

From 2014 a breath of fresh air will come into the matter. A new EU directive allows the Commission to prescribe a standard with a simple legal act - until then a separate law was necessary. The EU authority receives a sharp sword to cut the cable knot.

MEPs publicly urge the Commission to finally take action. The best solution in the industry is the new USB-C standard, which will be introduced in 2014 as the successor to micro-USB. This could easily replace Lightning. "USB-C is very powerful as an interface and is technically superior to Lightning," says Apple expert Schuster. Apple even installed USB-C ports in other devices such as the iPad Pro. Just not in the iPhone.

The Commission hesitates for the next few years. Once again, EU officials are urging the industry to come up with solutions itself. But Apple refuses. Almost all smartphone manufacturers are ready to come to an agreement based on USB-C, noted an EU official in autumn 2016. All but one.

paper is patient

It wasn't until 2018 that Europe's patience finally seems to have come to an end. Last summer, EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who had previously fined Apple a record € 13 billion, criticized the lack of progress with the standardized charger. The EU Commission is planning an impact assessment to prepare legal steps.

EU Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska is now responsible. In a letter to the Commissioner in October, 30 MPs urged more speed. The new standard must also apply not only to cell phones, but also to tablets, e-book readers and other devices.

Apple warns the commission against regulation. Apple shipped more than a billion devices with a Lightning connector. The associated cables would become obsolete in one fell swoop with the introduction of a new standard, writes the group in a statement. The company makes its own special way to argue against any regulation.

Among those in the know, however, it is likely that the next generation of iPhones will also be delivered with their own plug. At the request of netzpolitik.org, the group did not want to comment on the topic.

The next challenge is waiting in the meantime. More and more cell phones allow wireless charging. So far, Qi is a standard supported by Apple and other manufacturers. But who guarantees that it will stay that way? The consumer organization ANEC advocates agreeing a fixed standard for wireless charging as well.

Pass on to the next one

But there is no further solution in sight. The Commission is waiting for the result of its impact assessment, which is not expected before September 2019 - after the European elections in May. In autumn, the successor of EU Commissioner Bienkowska will inherit the topic.

Until then, the EU authority will not commit itself to legally binding standards. "The commission prefers voluntary agreements that are ambitious and have the support of all those involved in the industry," wrote a spokeswoman for the commission when asked by netzpolitik.org.

Consumer advocates consider the previous path to have failed. “Self-regulation rarely delivers results for consumers. It is a sad truth that a change often requires mandatory regulations, ”says Frederico Da Silva from the EU consumer association BEUC. "The inconvenience and the ecological madness of different chargers has been known for many years."

Da Silva urges the Commission not to wait any longer. "Impact assessments and studies shouldn't be a fig leaf for delaying decisions," he says. "What we need now is political will to resolve the issue."

"We almost made it"

After a decade of work by the Commission, the idea of ​​a common charger is still piecemeal. The Commission official we spoke to nevertheless believes that his agency's work is practically done. “We almost made it, minus one [manufacturer].” If such a success against Apple looks like, what do defeats look like?

Whatever the impact assessment of the commission and its next step, Apple bought itself a decade in which it did not have to accept any conditions. That is a huge lobbying success for the group - and a defeat for Europe.

About the author

Alexander Fanta

As the Brussels correspondent of netzpolitik.org, Alexander reports on the digital policy of the European Union. He writes about new laws and does investigative research on large technology companies and their lobbying. He is co-author of the study "Medienmäzen Google" on the group's journalism funding. In 2017 Alexander was a fellow at the Reuters Institute for Journalism Research at Oxford University, where he researched automation in journalism. Before that he was a foreign policy journalist for the Austrian news agency APA. E-mail:[email protected] (PGP). Twitter:@FantaAlexx. WhatsApp / Threema: +32483248596.
Published 03/12/2019 at 6:45 AM