Europe’s Innovation-Stifling, Environment-Saving, Universal Phone Charger

Look at chargers from both sides now, like the (late?) Lightning.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s Europe, regulating innovation into dust (or into a simpler, less wasteful society). Members of the European Parliament voted in favor of a law that would require all mobile phone makers to use the same charger, likely the almost ubiquitous microUSB. According to Barbara Weiler, MEP rapporteur, the law “will put an end to charger clutter and 51,000 tonnes of electronic waste annually,” by requiring that, from 2017 onward, “certain categories of radio equipment,” which may or may not include tablets, will all be using the same charger.

To its credit (or because it has no choice) the big holdout against microUSB, Apple, has pledged (or been coerced) to join with other phone makers. While the port on the phone would still be “the Lightning”—which works better/is a proprietary profit maker for milking fan boy rubes—Apple has vowed to ship its phones sold in the EU with an adaptor, proving that the law is either not too much for manufacturers or that it is self-defeating at reducing the number of cords in the world.

But the Lightning raises interesting/trifling questions: It transfers data faster and charges faster than microUSB, and can be plugged in with either side up. That technology changes faster than laws is conventional wisdom at this point, but Europe’s universal charger has been talked for half a decade, and isn’t even law yet. Apple agreed to work out an adaptor for the EU in 2009, back when it was using the old 30-pin dock connection, so five years is a long time in charger life. Does writing a charger into law run the risk of European smartphones getting stuck with the best we have now, at the expense of what might be better next?

Or course, how much better can a charger really get? Planning obsolescence and hyping small, indistinguishable improvements is what keeps Americans replacing their phones (and chargers) every 22 months, throwing away 120 million phones in 2010 .

Any time you mention regulation or France to an American audience, their minds are pretty much already made up, so I tried to cover both ups and down, so everyone could feel equally misrepresented. Of course there’s a case for and against a single, universal charger, but really as long as EU is still a huge desirable marketplace, phone manufacturers will meet regulatory requirements. Phone chargers might not be included with every phone in the future, but that doesn't mean that people are going to stop forgetting them in hotel rooms and buying new—but likely cheaper—chargers. Knowing that it's useful for both their current and next phone, as well as that of their children or significant others, might keep the charger out of the landfill slightly longer though.

Really the most ironic part of this whole thing is that the universal power adapter, if it is approved by the European Council and integrated into laws in member states, will only be universal on the end that plugs into the phone, as electrical plugs in France, Italy, the UK, and Denmark are all different.