Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a research director for the Institute for the Future and the head of their Digital Intelligence Lab. A frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, he co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” and is co-author of the new book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Back in 2018 — that is to say, five iPhone generations ago — an acquaintance shared a picture of a bunch of frayed and useless Apple Lightning charging cables on my Twitter feed, complaining that as a trillion-dollar company, Apple should “figure out a way to make better cords.”
I tweeted back that, if the number of Lightning cables I’ve bought is any indication, their savage commitment to self-destructing phone cords is exactly why they’re a trillion-dollar company.
My response generated a thunderous chorus of agreement, with tens of thousands of people from around the world chiming in to share their own cable-related misfortunes. Some even tallied the “cord tax” their households are hit with on an annual basis (my own share: About $100 a year, since my kids apparently consume them like Pocky).
All of which is to say that iPhone cords are a very big business: There are reportedly about 1.2 billion active iPhones out in the wild. And if their charging cables need to be replaced once or twice a year as many users attest, at roughly $20 a pop, well, you could just about buy a Twitter a year for that sum.
That’s why the European Union Council’s approval of a new mandate requiring phones to converge on a single wired charging standard beginning in 2024 — the relatively cheap and simple USB-C cord — is such a hallelujah moment for iPhone owners everywhere.
And anyone who’s ever turned their house upside down hunting for that elusive cord with ‘the right bit,’ for that matter. The new rules mean that in two years, a whole range of electronic devices — from phones to tablets and headphones — will finally use the same juice-dongles (excuse the technical term).
The conversion challenge has never been a technological one. One end of a typical iPhone cable already has a USB-C connector, given that it was ironically Apple that led the industry by migrating all of its laptops to USB-C ports back in 2016. And Apple’s flagship iPad tablets were moved over to USB-C charging in 2018.
While the new edict only directly applies to devices sold in the EU, India looks set to follow in Europe’s footsteps.
The question one might understandably ask is why the US is dragging its feet, given the EU’s leadership and India’s fast followership in this regard.
One answer could be the millions that Apple spends on lobbying in its native country. But another is simply that America tends to pride itself on its bloodyminded love of letting markets do the dirty work of solving consumer confusion, which growing up led my tech-bemused dad to clutter our house with Betamax tapes, laser discs and HD-DVDs (I believe we had copies of the 1955 movie version of “Oklahoma!,” a fatherly favorite, on all three formats).
The fact is, though, the move is almost certain to serve as the push that gets Apple to finally abandon its bespoke-battery-booster approach for future versions of the world’s most popular smartphone. Even Greg Joswiak, the company’s global head of marketing, admitted that the EU standardization push means the lifespan of Lightning is likely finally over. And right on time, given that ten years ago Apple called it the “cable standard for the next decade.”
So what does this mean for gadget enthusiasts going forward? Well, the arrival of One Cord to Charge Them All will make it easier to keep devices powered up when caught short-handed, reducing the likelihood of being exposed to that fibrillation-inducing “10% of battery remaining” popup. Replacing lost or broken cords will be cheap and simple, without the fear that a questionable petrol-station-purchased Lightning cable might cause your phone to detonate like a hand grenade.
It might even dilute some of the tribal tension between iPhone and Android users, assuming the latter don’t lord over us the fact that most of them have already been charging with C for half a decade. (We still have our blue message bubbles, greenies!)
And it might generally reduce the temptation among tech companies, chief among them Apple, to “innovate” by introducing proprietary parts that regularly force an entire domino cascade of costly upgrades. (The fact that every new iPhone seems to be a random millimeter different in size and shape in each direction already means that brand new cases, cradles and screen protectors have to be repurchased along with new handsets, all for the privilege of a few hundred pixels of fresh real estate.)
While that process may offer a welcome cash stimulus to the peripherals and accessories industry, it contributes to the massive environmental burden caused by e-waste, estimated at about 60 million tons a year — an amount heavier than the world’s heaviest man-made object, the Great Wall of China.
Of course, this does bring up the question of what Santa should give the kids as stocking stuffers year after year, now that a bouquet of phone cords is probably out. Back to sugarplums it is!