If you buy an iPhone in the future, you won't get an included charger or earbuds. Apple says the reasons are environmental. If there are fewer “free” accessories given out with each phone, it means less supplies, the company claims, and it also creates smaller boxes that can be shipped more efficiently. In the future, these boxes will only come with a phone and a Lightning-to-USB-C cable.
I think Apple's approach is generally a good thing, but it should have gone further by switching from its proprietary Lightning port entirely to USB-C. That Lightning to USB-C cable would instantly turn into a much more useful USB-C to USB-C cable that could basically charge all of your electronics. Or better yet, Apple could remove the cord entirely and just ship the phone itself, avoiding even more duplicate waste.
It's a relatively small change for any person buying an iPhone, but it's massive considering that Apple shipped nearly 200 million iPhones in the past year, according to IDC. Chargers may make up a relatively small percentage of all e-waste, Wired notes. Globally, however, this is still tens of thousands of tons per year. And, as evidenced by the lack of headphone jacks on the flagship smartphones of 2020, Apple's choices have had a huge impact on the rest of the industry as well.
Apple argues that no loading stone makes for smaller, more efficient packaging.
USB-C is already becoming the standard
I'll be the first to admit that USB-C isn't a perfect standard. The naming scheme was a mess (the current USB standard is fucking called USB 3.2 Gen 2×2), and there are so many bad USB-C cables in the wild that some people have made it their business to root out the worst. To borrow a famous twist, USB-C is the worst connectivity standard … except for all of the others. But it is also the best that has been created so far.
USB-C is the worst connection standard among all the others
In 2020, USB-C will be about as universal as the cable connection standards. It is used by over-ear headphones, true wireless earbuds, VR headsets, tablets (including some made by Apple), laptops (including all made by Apple), and laptop accessories. It's used by game consoles like the Nintendo Switch and will be used with both the PS5 and Xbox Series X controllers when those consoles ship next month. USB-C batteries are becoming more common and chargers are getting smaller and extremely powerful – with up to 100 watts, a powerful battery or charger the size of a card game can sometimes power a laptop, tablet and phone at the same time.
Not only is USB-C used almost everywhere, it's difficult to name something that actually makes Lightning better. Longtime Apple blogger John Gruber has argued in the past that it is a sleeker and slightly thinner port that … sure, maybe? But is that reason enough to keep the status quo if Apple cares about the environment as it claims?
You probably already have a USB-C charger
Apple's main argument for taking the charger out of the box is to avoid building up accessories that many people already own. During its presentation, Apple estimated that there are 2 billion of its power supplies and "billion" third-party chargers worldwide.
But let's put that into perspective. According to IDC, Apple only had a 13.9 percent share of the global smartphone market in 2019 and shipped nearly 200 million phones last year. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry shipped over a billion phones in just one year, and most of those devices used USB-C. That's a lot of people who already have everything they need to charge a hypothetical USB-C iPhone, including charging bricks and USB-C cables. And it doesn't include everyone who has bought other USB-C devices like headphones, laptops, and tablets, including the latest MacBook and iPad Pro devices.
The Fairphone 3 Plus is delivered without a charger or cable
All of this means you can sell a USB-C smartphone with no charging accessories if you really want it. That's what the ethical smartphone manufacturer Fairphone does. In the box of the latest phone, the Fairphone 3 Plus, there are no headphones, no USB-C charging cable and no USB-C charging stone. Instead, there is a small screwdriver so, in theory, you can fix the phone yourself in due course rather than throwing it away.
A little strange house halfway through
There are serious questions to be asked about how positively Apple's existing plan will actually affect the environment. A big part of Apple's pitch is that there are billions of power supplies already out there, but it's likely a significant chunk of them use the USB-A standard, which is incompatible with the Lightning-to-USB-C cable , the Apple now in the box for faster loading speeds. Apple only started packing USB-C power adapters in the box last year, and even then it was limited to the Pro models, which means the vast majority of iPhones sold come with an included USB-A chip was delivered.
USB-C charging stones were only bundled with last year's iPhone 11 Pro.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
I am not saying that there will be no environmental impact. With the iPhone 12, many users can continue to use their existing USB-A to Lightning charging cables and USB-A power cables, regardless of which new cable comes in the box. But what is this Lightning to USB-C cable used for, especially if you switch to Apple's MagSafe chargers instead? If it's a USB-C to USB-C cable, at least you can use it with other devices. Apple could have a much bigger impact on the environment in the long run if its proprietary Lightning port was completely eliminated.
We already know what Apple thinks about a possible switch to USB-C ports, as it made a statement on the matter earlier this year. The statement came in response to efforts by the EU to make a common charger mandatory for all smartphones, and Apple argued that switching to USB-C would actually make the environment worse by eliminating the need for hundreds of millions of Lightning accessories. Here is the relevant part of the statement released in January (emphasis added):
“More than 1 billion Apple devices shipped with a Lightning connector, in addition to an entire ecosystem of accessory and device manufacturers using Lightning to serve our mutual customers. Legislation would have a direct negative impact if it disrupted the hundreds of millions of active devices and accessories used by our European customers and even more Apple customers around the world. Creation of an unprecedented volume of electronic waste and very annoying to users. "
There are absolutely many Lightning accessories out there. The argument sounds hollow, however, as Apple has historically avoided all of those 30-pin iPod docks and early iPhone peripherals when it switched to Lightning in 2012. Instead of sending them straight to the dump, Apple and others sold 30-pin Lightning adapters to add years to the usefulness of these old accessories. Apple and its partners can certainly do the same right now to get all of these Lightning devices. Yes, it would create a one-time spate of adapters that would eventually land in landfills, but it's the short-term price that has to be paid for the long-term benefits of convergence.
Same pain, more gain
As someone who has a whole drawer of spare adapters that I never use, I'm fine with what Apple wants to achieve with the iPhone 12. It really is unsustainable to give out duplicate accessories with every new phone if we are to try and reduce the estimated 53.6 million tons of electronic waste we threw away last year.
The iPhone 11 should be the last with Lightning
But I also have some sympathy for those who say Apple is nickeling its customers with the move. When a phone costs hundreds of dollars, it's hard not to feel a little betrayed by a smaller box with fewer accessories, especially when the rest are still half proprietary.
Now, by using the environment to justify the removal of wasteful iPhone charging accessories, Apple has thrown itself into a corner. If environmental concerns are important enough to affect what's in a new phone, they should also be important enough to directly affect the design.
Last year my colleague Dieter argued that the iPhone 11 should be the last one with Lightning. He's still right.