Consider This A Warning: Don't Standardize Stagnation

Thomas Warns*

Last week the European Union moved to standardize all cell phone chargers. While the law has yet to be finalized, a 550-12 vote in the European Parliament means that the law’s passage is all but a formality at this point. The bill’s supporters say the bill is a win-win:  

Rapporteur Barbara Weiler said she was particularly glad the modernized Radio Equipment Directive now included details on the introduction of such a charger for mobile phones, tablets and other mobile devices from producers such as Nokia, Sony, Apple, Motorola and Samsung.

"This serves the interests both of consumers and the environment," Weiler said in a statement. "It will put an end to charger clutter and 51,000 tons of electronic waste annually."

Consumers should be wary of the wolf that comes in sheep’s clothing however. The deal is bad for consumers on several fronts. First of all, the EU is responding to a problem that has largely solved itself – that of a vast number of different proprietary chargers causing consumers constant headaches. While supporters have disseminated pictures of consumers holding eight or more different cell phone chargers in one hand, the reality is that the industry has largely moved towards standardization by itself.

Way back in 2009, a group of major handset sellers decided to adopt the Micro-USB charger as the industry standard (the only major manufacturer not part of the agreement was Apple). There was some prodding to act by regulatory agencies within the EU, but it was largely backed and endorsed by the manufacturers. While the agreement formally expired in 2012, the manufacturers have all continued to produce phones powered by the Micro-USB charger. The industry had largely solved the perceived problem of charger clutter by itself.

The exception to this of course was Apple, which continued using its own charger for its iPods, iPhones, and iPads until the introduction of the Lightning charger in 2012. The Lightning charger boasted several enhancements over the Micro-USB, such as the ability to charge in either direction along the cord and a much more rugged connector than the Micro-USB, which had a notoriously fragile “hollow-envelope” at the connector; now the Micro-USB has largely copied the innovative Lightning charger with a sturdier, solid connector. Micro-USB’s still have a relatively clumsy “pin” connector, while the Lightning connector does not. Apple will be forced to forego the Lightning connector (and any other charger improvements it had in mind) if the EU regulators have their way. With nothing else on the market, who will push the Micro-USB to get better?

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the major cell phone companies, besides Apple, all supported this law. It makes sense for them to use the regulators as pawns in order to stop Apple from innovating in new and creative ways. The other manufacturers would much rather stick with current technology, and force everyone to rely on an intergovernmental bureaucracy to approve any further changes off the rapidly aging current standard. When you can’t keep up with competition, why not use the government to prevent your competition from getting ahead? Why not even force them to spend millions in order to adopt their phones to the standard your phone uses?

One must next question whether the regulations will really reduce 51,000 tons of electronic waste every year, since cell phone manufacturers are still likely to include a charger in every box with your new phone, even if the buyer already has a Micro-USB charger. Reducing environmental damage is always a good thing, but will a standardized charger really help if everyone needs to have their own charger? It will likely cause the same amount of waste, but all of one standard variety.

Europe’s charger standardization is bad policy, and it should not be brought to America. The cell phone manufacturers have naturally gravitated towards fewer proprietary chargers, which have the benefit of convenience for consumers. This standard should not be foisted upon Apple if they want to create better chargers for their customers however. Unfortunately, Europe’s actions might create a de facto Micro-USB standard for America too if Apple and other manufacturers balk at the cost of creating different phones with different chargers for Europe and North America. It is a sad day for America when the consequences of Europe’s regulation-fetish wash up on our shores against our will.

*Thomas Warns is a J.D. Candidate, class of 2015, at NYU School of law, Staff Editor on the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty , and author of the weekly column "Consider This a Warning."