The European Union has made its ruling: If Apple wants to sell new iPhones in the region, those devices will need to have a USB-C port before the end of 2024.
That means Apple's proprietary Lightning connector, which has existed for more than a decade and established itself as a considerable money-maker for the tech giant, will need to be phased out of future iPhones. At least the ones going to the EU.
"We have no choice -- as we do around the world, [Apple will] comply with local laws," Greg Joswiak, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said at a Wall Street Journal tech conference on Oct. 25 when asked if Apple will adhere to the EU's common charging law.
"We think it would have been better environmentally and better for our customers to not have a government be that prescriptive."
While the legislation technically only applies to consumer electronics sold within the EU, Apple may be forced to decide on the fate of the Lightning port for iPhones bound for overseas. Most commercial phones charge and connect to accessories using the USB-C standard, but iPhones don't. Could this mean future iPhones sold outside the EU will also transition to a USB-C charging port? Or will Apple make hardware changes by geography: Producing two iPhone variants to accommodate USB-C and Lightning -- one for the EU and the other for the rest of the world?
Apple already modifies iPhone models regionally, as it has done with the iPhone 14. The US version only has an electronic SIM, while other variants retain the SIM slot, as Avi Greengart, analyst at Techsponential, points out. But he also thinks Apple has good reasons to move all iPhones to USB-C moving forward.
"...There are larger ecosystem, security, and accessory considerations with the power/data connector, so I think it is more likely that Apple moves all iPhones [globally] to USB-C in the iPhone 16 timeframe to comply with European regulations."
For more than a decade, European lawmakers have pushed for electronic devices to include a standardized charger in a bid to reduce cable clutter and e-waste. The legislation, part of the amended Radio Equipment Directive, was finalized in June before the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of the rule in October. Its approval is widely seen as a victory for consumers, who will soon be able to use just one single USB-C charger across a range of accessories and devices, including higher-wattage ones like gaming laptops and 4K monitors. Its adoption was also viewed as a win for the environment. A European think tank estimates chargers put up to 13,000 tons of e-waste per year in the EU and have associated life cycle emissions of around 600 to 900 kilotons in carbon dioxide equivalents.
Apple has vociferously lobbied against the idea of a common phone charger. The tech giant argues such legislation could stifle innovation and exacerbate the e-waste problem since it would presumably render the Lightning cable obsolete for possibly a billion people worldwide. Apple, which collects fees from third-party companies that manufacture made-for-iPhone accessories, would potentially miss out on the earnings generated from every Lightning cable and accessory that's compatible with the iPhone.
Despite Apple's pushback, the tech giant has reportedly put a USB-C iPhone to the test. Noted Apple analyst Ming Chi Kuo predicts Apple will beat the EU mandate by a year, equipping a new iPhone with a USB-C port in 2023.
"USB-C could improve iPhone's transfer and charging speed in hardware designs, but the final spec details still depend on iOS support," Kuo wrote in a May post on Twitter.
For its part, Apple has been transitioning out of Lightning in other products for several years now. The tech giant included USB-C in 2015 with that year's MacBook. It later replaced Lightning with USB-C on the iPad Pro in 2018, the iPad Air in 2020 and iPad Mini in 2021. In addition to including a USB-C port on a rumored 2023 iPhone, Kuo expects several other Apple accessories, including AirPods, the Magic Keyboard and the MagSafe Battery Pack, to switch over to USB-C, but he didn't offer a specific timeline.
Read more: Will a USB-C iPhone Make Apple's Lightning Cable Obsolete? Not Yet
In the long run, the iPhone's shift to USB-C is poised to benefit Apple customers -- just as the legislation intended. Since most of the company's iPads and Macs already use USB-C rather than Lightning, the move will streamline the charging experience. Apple loyalists currently need three different types of chargers to power the iPhone, MacBook, iPad and Apple Watch. For a company that prides itself on its ecosystem, Apple offers a cumbersome charging experience that runs counter to its ethos of simplicity.
"It does make sense for Apple to [switch to a USB-C iPhone] across markets, as it will not only enhance the experience of the users, who are also using iPads or Macs, but will also simplify the processes in the supply chain," Will Wong, a research manager for the International Data Corporation, told CNET.
Read more: Apple's Dream for iPhones Could Actually Be a Nightmare
Even if Apple eventually makes the switch to a USB-C iPhone for all models, it's possible the connector will only be used for a short time. Rumors point to Apple abandoning ports on the iPhone altogether, moving entirely to wireless charging and connectivity like with Apple's MagSafe accessories.
"Portless is likely to be one of the developments Apple is looking at as we saw the introduction of the MagSafe wireless charger," Wong said. "Nevertheless, there are hurdles like slower charging speed to overcome before fully going portless,"
A USB-C iPhone is perhaps more likely than ever to hit stores worldwide, however. It's something that's been on Apple fans' wish lists for years as a USB-C port is more convenient and transfers data more efficiently than its Lightning counterpart. Whether that happens in 2023, 2024 or beyond remains to be seen, but Apple is readying itself and its iPhones for a transition in the EU, at the very least.