Manufacturers of mobile phones have faced pressure for some time to standardise the connectors used for charging, in order to increase compatibility between different devices and reduce electronic waste. The European Commission has been pushing companies for a number of years to agree on a single standardised charging port. There has been some convergence between manufacturers – EU figures state that there were more than 30 different types of charger on the market in 2009, whereas a large number of devices now use one of three main types: USB-C, Micro USB and Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector. But there is an argument that such standardisation stifles innovation.
Apple has for the most part resisted moving to USB-C, and currently still uses its 8-pin Lightning connector in its iPhones. For something so small, it’s more complex than it might seem at first glance, and Apple has been granted a number of patents for it. Did you know, the Lightning connector includes a built-in processor chip to detect which way up it has been plugged in, and to dynamically route electrical signals to the correct pins accordingly? The chip also performs security and authentication functions, to check whether the connector is an official one.
But where does this drive for standardisation leave innovators? Companies may be left unable to exploit their inventions in the marketplace, and as a result be discouraged from investing in such research. And the consumer may end up with a standardised product that is, ultimately, not as good as alternatives, and have no choice about it. This may in turn also hamper the development of other aspects of the devices and accessories that need to be compatible with these standardised parts.
This of course has to be balanced against the benefits to the consumer of not needing a new charger every time they buy a new device (and ending up with a mountain of old chargers sitting in a drawer) as well as the corresponding environmental cost of the manufacture and disposal of such obsolete products.
Let us hope that manufacturers and regulators can achieve a compromise that enables innovative products to be used throughout the market, and results in a win-win for the consumer and the planet.