Why the EU forcing Apple to adopt USB-C would be a bad thing

Today, the European Commission has put forward legislation that would require all portable electronic devices to have a USB-C port — including Apple’s iPhone. The proposal itself hasn’t yet gone into effect (it stills needs to pass a vote in the European Parliament), but as much as I wish Apple would finally put USB-C on the iPhone, I’m actually hoping it doesn’t pass. For several reasons.

It slows down innovation

Forcing the USB-C port on all devices means that we will never have anything better than USB-C — or, at least, it would be a lot harder to make something better. Sure, USB Type-C is a great port, usually associated with great standards (and, we should point out, you could arguably implement those standards using another cable/port), but do we really want this to be the only plug we have? It’s certainly easy to conceive of a better plug for charging if you have other priorities. After all, barrel connectors remain a thing, and product requirements change over time. What if someone wants to create a smaller connector? Or one with a magnetic connection? Or one that supports faster transfer rates or charging speeds through some other means that the current connector lacks?

USB Type-C is arguably the best plug we have going right now, I’m not arguing against that. But we wouldn’t be able to experiment with alternatives as easily if a specific port becomes mandated for certain product categories.

What if this had happened when Micro USB was still the standard? Imagine still being stuck on Micro USB for everything, using a weak connector that was more prone to breaking, wasn’t reversible, and got clogged with lint and gunk more easily. Standards at the time for that port capped at 480 Mbps transfer speed maximums, without the benefits of our current much higher fast-charging rates. And sure, we could have improved on that same four-wire implementation beyond what we had, but we wouldn’t be the beneficiaries of USB Type-C’s 20 extra pins and all the protocols and functionality you legitimately just need more copper to deliver. Apple’s Lightning connector, which was released 3 years before USB-C was announced, would probably never have existed either, if you see that as a benefit.

Compounded by that is the fundamental fact that the pace of legislation moves much slower than technology. USB-C was first proposed by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) in 2014, making it already 7 years old (as old as Micro USB when USB-C was first announced). If (or when) the USB-IF announces a successor to USB-C, how many years will it take until the EU makes it legal for companies to implement it? By late 2023, the earliest this law would ever become enforceable, USB-C will be almost a decade old. And if and when we do have a “better” port than Type-C, how long would it take for the EU to allow companies to use it?

We already made the switch

Aside from the iPhone, basically every other portable device already has a USB-C connector. If you don’t have an iPhone, you probably already use USB-C for everything else, unless you’re hanging onto an older gadget or a Kindle. But even Amazon, with its glacial rate of hardware improvements and stubborn obstinacy for Micro USB, has finally picked up USB Type-C in the latest Kindle lineup, and even the cheapest budget phones began switching over in the last year or two.

Obviously, there are clear interoperability advantages to having a universal connector, and there are plenty of good motivations behind this effort, like reducing e-waste and being more convenient to consumers. If we wanted to steelman this proposal, there are a few ways in which might be salvageable, but each approach that I can think of would have its own drawbacks, too.

Possible exceptions

For one, the EU could make an exception for connectors that are demonstrably “better” than USB-C in some way. While this would do away with some bad proprietary connectors, it’s also relatively useless in practice. It’s easy to create a charger that is marginally better than USB-C in at least one way concrete way and argue that as a benefit. Frankly, it would be trivial for Apple and its legion of aggressive attorneys to convincingly argue that Lightning is already both smaller and less fragile than USB-C, and therefore an improvement for consumers, even if most of us would rather have an iPhone that uses the same plug that an iPad or MacBook does — to say nothing of the whole world of other Type-C devices.

They could also only enforce the change over older standards, like Micro and Mini USB. While there are certainly ways in which you could argue that Lightning is better than USB-C, Micro USB is worse than USB-C in every conceivable way, and there’s no excuse for new hardware to still use Micro USB in 2021. While almost all manufacturers have made that switch, I don’t see an issue with making it a mandate — but that doesn’t “fix” the situation with Apple (if you see that as a problem).

The dark days of Micro USB are almost behind us. 

Another option would be to only require a USB Type-C connection at one end of the cable. This would still reduce e-waste by making it cheaper to replace a worn-out cable without throwing away the whole charger. But it would also mean no more USB Type-A, which might be problematic if you use an older computer, and it doesn’t solve the problem of convenience via interoperability.

As a Portuguese citizen myself, I often find myself being both a staunch defender of the EU and one of its harshest critics. Because of the European Union, we have free movement of goods and people within most of Europe, a shared currency, and no roaming fees. But we can’t forget that it was also the European Commission’s good intentions that gave us the cookie consent popup, which is arguably the most useless thing on the internet — and that’s saying something.

Let’s hope the European Commission is able to see past its own myopia and realize that the current proposal will certainly do more harm than good.

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