Conspicuously absent from the discussion over the pros and cons of the new iPhone 5 is a more troubling issue with Apple’s decision to go with their new “Lightning” charger. There has been plenty of noise made over the fact that the switch renders many Apple customers’ old accessories useless, but the problem with the Mac manufacturer’s decision is more serious than just a few iFans having to shell out $30 dollars for an adapter. And even If you’ve never picked up a Smartphone, this matters, and it signifies a disturbing trend as civilization plows ahead into the 21st century.
It is absurd (and even insulting to some degree) that Apple continues to ignore the Micro-USB charger (the universal standard in mobile device charging) used by essentially every phone, tablet or likewise piece of small consumer technology on the planet. Praised for its energy efficiency, versatility and light environmental footprint, Micro-USB has been endorsed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as the likely long-time standard in the industry.
Why does standardization matter? Imagine if different Hollywood studios used different types of DVDs, which needed their own DVD players. Imagine if headphones made by different companies all had different connectors, which all needed different adapters. Imagine moving to a new house and needing to buy all new appliances for different electric outlets. Imagine if every brand of TV needed a different cable line, which of course would be different for each cable provider.
Some of the examples above are silly. But that’s the point. Not standardizing systems on a macro level is silly too. Think of the enormous waste if those products were not uniform at least to some degree. Here’s what the ITU said about their decision to globally back Micro-USB:
“Every mobile phone user will benefit from the new Universal Charging Solution (UCS), which enables the same charger to be used for all future handsets, regardless of make and model. In addition to dramatically cutting the number of chargers produced, shipped and subsequently discarded as new models become available, the new standard will mean users worldwide will be able to charge their mobiles anywhere from any available charger, while also reducing the energy consumed while charging. The new UCS standard was based on input from the GSMA, which predicts a 50 per cent reduction in standby energy consumption, elimination of 51,000 tonnes of redundant chargers, and a subsequent reduction of 13.6 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions each year.”
So why does Apple ignore this? Obviously, it’s because they can. Apple can make a few extra dollars off selling a new charger, or by keeping their chargers licensed only through their offices. This is not a surprise, and Apple has every right to do it.
But plenty of evidence suggests this isn’t the best way to do things long term even from the company’s point of view. There’s a reason why different (and competing) manufacturers came together to make the classic USB we all recognize (including Apple). If most accessories like mouses, keyboards, or gamepads use the same connector (USB), which works on every computer and device, people are more likely to buy into technology in general. When Phillips and Sony came together to develop CDs and CD-ROMs, they made the specifications widely available to everyone. They knew that no one was going to buy CDs and a CD player if you had to lock yourself into listening to only one company’s CDs, or if you needed a different player depending on whether it was a Motown or Atlantic Records album.
Currently, Apple can get away with it because there are consumers (a lot of consumers) who are OK with locking themselves into one company in this way. But that doesn’t erase the inefficiency that goes along with that process from a macro-societal point of view.
This isn’t to suggest Apple’s Lightning charger is causing America’s debt, or burning down the rainforest. But generally speaking, if you had two markets, each with a billion people, with one having a universal charger for their phones but the other having two different types, which one is inevitably going to use much more resources?
No one is saying Apple shouldn’t be able to do this (they can try to make their customers buy whatever they want), or that their Lightning charger isn’t a great product (it probably is), but in a 21st century of shrinking resources, exploding population numbers and rampant financial issues, aren’t civilized societies supposed to be moving towards more responsible decisions in this regard?
The obvious question is where are the iPhone-toting hipsters and Progressives—who howl about Wal-Mart’s wasteful ways—on this issue? Where is the iPad-owning Occupy Wall Street crowd that despises Corporate America’s unabashed capitalism? There have been a few complaints about the $30 dollar adapter, but the iPhone 5 has seen phenomenally successful sales.
Have these groups remained so silent on this blatant money grab and total disregard for the movement towards efficiency and responsibility because they worship Apple products? Maybe Big Oil just needs to make their products look cooler — then they’ll get a pass from college students’ protests. Maybe Wall Street can avoid Occupation by finding an easier way for high schoolers to send text and picture messages.
The most distressing part about Apple’s choice is what seems to be a giant middle finger to everyone. Throughout history humans have shown a propensity to make the same mistakes over and over, but every now and then we’re quick to leave one behind — like the days of drawers full of 75 different types of chargers for every different phone on the planet, circa 2004. The progress represented in the Micro-USB standard is better for the public, the economy, the Earth, the technology itself and even the companies themselves in the long run.
When visions of future technology arise, either in movies or our minds, gadgets and computers might be more powerful, but they aren’t more complicated. No, they’re actually less complex. Technology’s entire goal is to make things simple and easier. Try picturing Luke Skywalker not being able to use his Lightsaber because Obi-Wan didn’t have the right charger.
It’s disappointing for a company as cutting edge as Apple to be the one holding up progress in this regard. We should demand better from these companies. One can only hope that in time a corporation most famous for its innovation will eventually… innovate.
1. It has been discussed that iPads would not work well with the Micro-USB, as the Apple product was built for a higher voltage. But that’s an excuse. The iPad was designed well after the Micro-USB was developed as the standard in charging; it’s not like Apple didn’t know they were doing this.
2. I’ll cede the point that Luke Skywalker never had to charge his Lightsaber if you cede the point that Lightsabers don’t exist.