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Apple, others agree to universal cell phone charger standard in Europe

Starting next year, Apple and other cell phone manufacturers will begin selling data-enabled phones in Europe that have standard for cell phone chargers.

Apple and other big phone makers have struck a deal with the European Commission to start selling phones with universal cell phone chargers starting next year.

Side by side view of a micro-USB connector and a regular USB connector. Wikimedia Commons

Under the agreement, manufacturers would start using micro-USB connections for phone chargers used for smartphones. Apple joins other big cell phone makers including LG, Motorola, Nokia, Research In Motion, Samsung and Sony Ericsson in agreeing to the new standard. Chipset makers, such as NEC, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments have also agreed to the deal.

In February the GSMA, a trade association for mobile carriers using GSM technology, said it had brokered a deal with handset makers to get the micro-USB technology into cell phone chargers by 2012. And the CTIA, the U.S. wireless trade association, backed the standard in April of this year.

The initiative has many advantages. For one it makes it much easier for consumers who no longer have to worry about losing their one and only cell phone charger. It also cuts down on waste since people can reuse their cell phone chargers when they get a new phone. Even though some cell phone manufacturers were reluctant to give up their proprietary cell phone chargers for fear that it would make it easier for customers to switch to new phones from competitors, eventually standardizing on one technology will help these manufacturers reduce costs.

While companies such as Nokia have already been using micro-USB connectors on some of its phones, it's surprising that Apple has joined the group. The company, which has seen great success with its iPhones, uses its own Dock Connector for the iPhone and other iPod devices. The company has licensed the connector technology to accessory makers, and there are thousands of third party products on the market that uses the Apple connector. Apple had not been listed as a company in February that backed the GSMA initiative for universal cell phone chargers.

It's not clear yet if Apple will only include the micro USB adapter in Europe or if it will include the micro-USB connector in addition to its own Dock Connector.

Sony Ericsson, one of the companies that had previously insisted on its own proprietary charging technology, now believes it will benefit the company because it will eventually lower packaging and shipping costs. The company also sees the initiative as another way to help it reduce its overall carbon footprint.

"We see the universal cell phone chargers as a good thing for us and the industry," said Jon Mulder, head of product marketing in the U.S. for Sony Ericsson. "We are also planning to take manuals out of our packaging and instead use e-manuals that will be right on the devices to help reduce waste."

It's estimated that there are 400 million mobile phones in Europe, and roughly 185 million phones are sold in Europe each year. The new EU requirement will only apply to more sophisticated data-enabled phones, which includes smartphones and higher end feature phones. These phones make up the fastest growing segment of the mobile market, and it's expected that over half of all new phones sold in 2010 will fall in this category.

The hope is that within three to four years all the data-enabled phones in Europe will be using the standardized chargers, the Commission has said.

The standardized chargers will be compatible only with European phones. But it is likely to become standard in other markets as well.