Apple jacks: iPhone will use EU's universal phone charger

Mark Lennihan/AP
Could Apple's current iPod connector be a thing of the past? The company just signed on for a micro-USB universal phone charger.

One cord to rule them all.

Apple today joined the European fellowship for a snarl free future – a coalition of major device makers that agreed on a single kind of cord that will power all of their smart phones. Earlier this year, the list included AT&T, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Orange, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, T-Mobile, and Vodafone.

But Apple held out. The company has had a curious relationship with technology standards. It evangelized FireWire as a speedy connection for gadgets and computers, but recently stopped including the jacks in many of its new laptops. It embraces AAC for audio and H.264 for video – but concocted many proprietary standards over the years.

Now, it's joined the micro-USB bandwagon. The effort evolved out of a European Union request to cut down of the obsolescence, e-waste, and energy consumption that plagued the old system. New phones often come with completely different cords, sometimes making the originals useless within a year. Also, the EU wants engineers to focus on a single format so that they can cooperate on reducing “vampire power” – the energy drawn when a gizmo is plugged in but the battery is already full.

It's no doubt a noble effort, but as the Monitor wondered in February:

What about all the chargers in use now? Doesn’t an industry shift to one standard create a mass charger dump that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred? At this point, micro-USB seems like an obscure choice; many cameras and some phones, notably the Motorola Razr, use mini-USB.

And what about the hardship that devoted “legacy” handset users will face if their charger conks out and they can’t get a replacement because, well, “You’re supposed to use this kind now. It’s new. Everyone else is doing it.”  Instead of just a new charger, that person is now faced with buying a whole new phone. So much for lessening the impact on landfills. Admittedly that argument has a certain curmudgeonly slant to it.

But the question is particularly interesting for Apple. Looking at the current iPhone, where are they going to stick a mini-USB socket? The top is crammed with a headphone hookup, SIM card slot, and the wake-up button; the bottom holds the microphone and current connector. That incumbent Apple jack has been an iPod tradition since the beginning. There have been small changes along the way – the new iPhone won't work with all iPod accessories – but there is a whole industry built around providing devices for iPods and iPhones. Has Apple just abandoned them?

The company has until 2012 to figure that out. That's when the EU agreement comes into effect. Macworld says that "a dock-connector to mini-USB adapter would fit within the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. And, while this arrangement only covers Europe, given Apple's history of creating one model of iPhone for the entire world, this decision could very well affect iPhones in the U.S. and elsewhere."

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