One charger for all smartphones? We're getting there, say tech companies

Nine years after tech companies first said they would standardize chargers, phone makers insist there's still no need to regulate.

Tech industry representatives have pushed back on the idea of smartphone makers being forced to standardize their chargers.

The European Commission is dissatisfied with the voluntary approach that has been in place since major phone manufacturers agreed to standardize on micro-USB chargers nine years ago, EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said last week. She said the Commission was now weighing up other options.

Such a move might affect Apple, which continues to use proprietary connectors. And DigitalEurope, a tech industry body that has been instrumental in organizing the voluntary agreements between phone manufacturers, is not happy.

"We as DigitalEurope do not see the need to regulate the market as it is already being successfully transformed providing consumers with the next generation of charging solutions as a result of industry's voluntary approach," said policy director Klaus-Dieter Axt.

The issue is a long-running one that is largely prompted by environmental concerns. Fewer charger types means more reuse and less need to ship a new charger with every device, although it is still common to do so.

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At the end of the last decade, the major phone manufacturers all signed up to use the micro-USB standard for charging their devices, either by installing such a port in the device or by using an adapter.

Their 2009 memorandum of understanding (MoU) expired at the end of 2012, but many of the firms signed similar letters of intent in 2013 and 2014.

In 2014, EU legislators also passed the Radio Equipment Directive, which among other things encourages the interoperability of radio equipment "with accessories, in particular with common chargers".

Then, in March this year, major manufacturers signed a second MoU in which they agreed to "gradually transition to the new common charging solution for smartphones based on USB Type-C". The signatories included Apple, Google, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony.

However, the Commission was apparently not impressed.

"The Commission, following expiration of the memorandum of understanding signed in 2009, has encouraged adoption of a new voluntary agreement," competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said this month in response to a question from Italian member of the European Parliament Sergio Cofferati.

"However, given the unsatisfactory progress with this voluntary approach, the Commission will shortly launch an impact assessment study to evaluate costs and benefits of different other options."

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Asked for clarification, a Commission spokesperson said the Commission has checked the March MoU "to see if it met the policy objectives of interoperability and uniformity of performance, reduction and prevention of fragmentation, e-waste reduction and timely phasing-in", and is "still in the reflection process".

"Please note that the Radio Equipment Directive does not foresee the mandatory use of a common charger, but empowers the Commission to take necessary legal actions to make progress in this direction," the spokesperson said.

At this point in the evolution of the smartphone industry, most handsets use some form of small USB connector, generally USB-C, for charging. The notable standout is Apple, which still uses Lightning connectors for charging iPhones and iPads.

"The uptake of USB-C which is the basis of the new MoU is impressive and the transformation of the market is in full swing," said DigitalEurope's Axt.

"The new charging solutions are also interoperable and reduce e-waste as there are various adapters available for legacy products -- clearly a result of the innovation-friendly, industry-driven voluntary approach."

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on the Commission's potential moves beyond the voluntary framework. Nor did Google and Samsung.

chargers.jpg

Fewer charger types means more reuse and less need to ship a new charger with every device.

Image: BernardaSv/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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