The EU’s USB-C proposal might give us a portless iPhone instead

The European Commission has announced plans to force smartphone and other electronics manufacturers to fit a common USB-C charging port on their devices. Given that most Android-powered smartphones now ship with a USB-C port, the proposals could see Apple finally be forced to move to USB-C on the iPhone. Or they might not, as they could instead force Apple to deliver a portless iPhone.

Today’s proposals from the EU only cover wired charging and don’t seek to enforce rules on wireless charging just yet. A spokesperson for the Commission has confirmed that if a device charges only wirelessly, then there is no requirement to integrate a USB-C charging port.

If the European Parliament adopts the proposals, manufacturers will have 24 months to comply with the new rules. That gives Apple a lot of time to create a portless iPhone if it wants to avoid USB-C altogether.

Apple has notoriously avoided USB-C on the iPhone, despite adopting it on many iPad and MacBook models. While the EU says its proposals are driven by environmental incentives, Apple has argued that a switch to USB-C would actually be worse for the environment because it renders hundreds of millions of Lightning accessories obsolete. These arguments might be irrelevant if Apple goes portless, instead.

Rumors of an iPhone without any ports have circulated for years after Apple had the “courage” to kill off the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 and make it clear wireless was the future for headphones. In fact, analysts originally predicted that this year’s iPhone would ship without any ports, ditching the Lightning port in favor of wireless charging.

That clearly hasn’t happened with the iPhone 13, but it doesn’t mean it’s not far off. The world of wireless charging is increasingly complicated, and interoperability isn’t always guaranteed, but things are moving quickly. The OnePlus 9 Pro supports 50W wireless charging, meaning the phone will fully charge in 43 minutes. Xiaomi also announced its next salvo in the wireless charging wars last year, thanks to an 80W wireless charger. Xiaomi claims it can charge a 4,000mAh battery fully in just 19 minutes.

Apple’s experiences with wireless charging haven’t been as impressive, though. Apple’s AirPower wireless charger was supposed to arrive with the unique ability to charge an iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods all at the same time. Unfortunately, Apple canceled AirPower in March 2019, citing difficulties in bringing the product to life.

The new iPhone 13 Pro supports wireless charging over the Qi standard at up to 7.5 watts and up to 15 watts using MagSafe wireless charging. Both of these are still slower than the fast-charge capable cables you can use to charge an iPhone with. Like anything Apple, the company is probably prototyping better wireless charging methods that will follow years after the Android competition.

Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has suggested that Apple has no plans to ditch the Lightning port on the iPhone in “the foreseeable future” and could move straight to a portless iPhone that relies exclusively on its MagSafe wireless charging standard instead. “If the ‌iPhone‌ abandons Lightning in the future, it may directly adopt a portless design with ‌MagSafe‌ support instead of using a USB-C port,“ said Kuo earlier this year.

Such a move could be driven by Apple’s desire to protect its MFi licensing business instead of moving to USB-C. Apple makes money off of every Lightning cable and accessory sold by way of licensing fees from the MFi accessory program. Apple also controls the MagSafe standard through its MFi program, ensuring it captures licensing fees on some wireless charging accessories for the iPhone.

If Apple is able to move to a portless iPhone before the two-year grace period from the European Commission, it could still be on a collision course for future clashes over charging standards, though. While the EU admits wireless charging is “not seen as a replacement for wired charging at the moment because of the efficiency rates of such chargers,” it does leave the door open to look at this technology at a later date.

“It is also necessary to provide the basis for adaption to any future technological progress by introducing a harmonization of the charging interfaces and the charging communication protocols with respect to radio equipment that may be charged via any means other than wired charging, including charging via radio waves (wireless charging),” says the Commission.

If Apple continues to support the Qi wireless charging standard, then it could avoid further scrutiny if it does move to a portless iPhone in the future. But if MagSafe comes to dominate, we could be back in an EU battle over charging standards once again.