This week we learned that the European Commission is hoping to pass a law which will require all device manufacturers to fit their smartphones with USB-C charging ports. For Android phones this is mostly already a done deal and moving to USB-C for any stragglers will not be a big deal. However for Apple, things are not as simple. While the company has deployed USB-C to the iPad and MacBook ranges, smartphones are another matter (AirPods less of a problem, realistically they use Lightning because the iPhone does).
And while it’s not my job to defend Apple, I’ve been thinking about this problem and what the EU is hoping to achieve, and the problems that lie in the way. Firstly, it is laudable that we move towards less e-waste but I suspect stopping Apple using Lightning won’t be much help. Let’s think for a moment about just how many Lightning cables there are in the world right now. Estimates on how many iPhones there are range from around 1.9 to 2.2 billion since the device first went on sale. Of those, quite a few carry lightning, and virtually every one of the still-in-use devices is likely to be using the port.
The iPhone 5 was Apple’s first Lightning-equipped phone so, we’ve had basically a decade of Lightning now. That could be as many as a billion devices which use lightning cables. And with the iPhone getting support for 5 years or so after launch it’s reasonable to expect that people will be using lightning for a few years to come. That means we already have a really significant collection of these cables that will, at some point, have to be thrown away or, perhaps, recycled.
This surely means that considerable harm will be done by forcing Apple to move to USB-C. It will means people will almost certainly need to replace their existing cables, especially if they have a collection of Lightning cables that they use to top up their phone wherever they are. It’s hard to see how enforcing such a change would decrease the amount of cables in the world.
It’s also worth pointing out that while Apple draws criticism from a lot of places for the whacky Lightning connector, it is actually a fairly decent cable system. It appeared way before USB-C but offers the same reversibility that people enjoy over the the meme-like idiocy of prior USB standards. It’s pretty resilient, I’ve never bent one for example, but I certainly have damaged a USB-C connector. Apple’s cables might be expensive, but unless abused they tend to last many, many years.
At the time it was introduced, Lightning was faster and more reliable than micro-USB and was clearly a more elegant solution for iPhones. Had Apple decided to make it an open standard, I think there’s a good chance it would have ended up being the connection on every phone.
The fact that Lightning is still around now is a testament to its cunning design. I don’t doubt its time is over. USB-C is, without doubt, the future and even Apple seems to understand that. A lot of its hardware has already moved on and into the open arms of USB-C. This isn’t as big a deal as many people might think, rumours suggest Apple was deeply involved in the development of USB-C. John Gruber, someone with good Apple connections, once claimed the company was entirely responsible for its design.
Whatever the truth is about Apple’s internal feelings toward USB-C, it’s pretty obvious that Lightning isn’t long for this world. It’s given us years of solid service and I think we should at least give it some grudging respect for being ahead of the game in technological terms. When the move away from it happens there will be a lot of pairs of Apple headphones, power cables and third party accessories rendered useless. For all the EU’s good intentions, that move will create a mountain of e-waste all of its own.