Commentary: USB-C is becoming more common on Apple products, but the Lightning cable still has a big role to play.
Apple did something highly unusual last week: It provided a concrete clue about the iPhone’s future. Company executives confirmed that Apple will comply with the European Union’s mandate that all phones in the region adopt USB-C as the common smartphone charging port in 2024. This means that future iPhones — likely the iPhone 16 and possibly the iPhone 15 — will need to shift away from the Lightning connector that’s existed since 2012.
The transition to USB-C seems inevitable for the iPhone given the EU’s new requirements. Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, speaking at the Wall Street Journal Tech Live conference, said that the company has “no choice” and that Apple would “comply with local laws” as it does around the world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Lightning cable is becoming extinct just yet. The Lightning port may play a bigger role in Apple’s lineup than you might expect, thanks to the multitude of accessories that still use it and the popularity of older iPhones.
It’s no secret that USB-C has become increasingly common on Apple products. It’s present on every iPad in the company’s current portfolio except for the ninth-generation iPad from 2021. You’ll find USB-C ports on Apple’s MacBook Pro and Air lineup as well.
But consumers and tech critics alike have been waiting for USB-C to arrive on the iPhone. An iPhone X that had been modified with a USB-C port even sold for $86,001 on eBay last year. After all, why wouldn’t you want to use the same cord to charge your iPhone, iPad and Mac? The EU’s new mandate represents a step toward a simpler charging experience in the long term. Yet there’s also a chance the transition period could cause some friction as consumers potentially bounce between chargers to power new iPhones alongside legacy accessories.
There are a handful of products that require a Lightning connection for wired charging, aside from the iPhone. Such devices include AirPods earbuds, the AirPods Max, the first-generation Apple Pencil (oddly the only model that works with the new USB-C-equipped iPad), the Magic Mouse, Magic Trackpad and Magic Keyboard. That means owners of these devices might still find themselves swapping cables if they purchase an iPhone with USB-C in the future.
Apple didn’t respond to CNET’s request for comment regarding whether it plans to retain the Lightning port on future versions of these products.
It’s also important to remember that not every iPhone shopper opts for the newest model. Apple often discounts older versions once a new iPhone arrives. Take its current lineup, for example, which still includes last year’s iPhone 13 and 2020’s iPhone 12. Apple also kept the iPhone 11 in the lineup at a lower price of $499 after introducing the iPhone 13 in September 2021. If Apple maintains that tradition, there will likely still be some Lightning-powered iPhones in its 2023 lineup too.
Even though many shoppers may flock to the newest iPhone, there’s a considerable market for older iPhones. The iPhone 11 was the fifth best-selling smartphone in 2021 even though it launched in 2019, according to Counterpoint Research. Sales of the iPhone 11, iPhone SE and 4-year-old iPhone XR accounted for 15% of US iPhone sales in the March 2022 quarter, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.
Refurbished iPhones are also popular, with Apple accounting for more than 40% of the global market for secondary phones, according to a separate Counterpoint Research report. Considering all iPhones since 2012 charge through Lightning, it’s safe to say that those purchasing refurbished models in the future will want to hang on to their Lightning cables. That’s particularly relevant considering demand for refurbished phones increased 15% in 2021 as customers looked to avoid high prices and make more sustainable buying decisions, Counterpoint also reported.
People may also be inclined to hold onto their current phones for longer as inflation cuts into other daily expenses. Global smartphone shipments are expected to decline 6.5% in 2022 as inflation has weakened demand, according to the International Data Corporation. The average age of traded-in smartphones has also reached three and a half years for the first time, according to Assurant, an insurance provider that also helps companies develop device trade-in programs. The more legacy iPhones remain in use, the more Lightning cables will remain in circulation.
Over the long term, the move to USB-C will be an improvement for iPhone owners. The change will make it possible to charge most recent iPads, Macs and eventually iPhones with a single cable — which is precisely why the EU made USB-C mandatory in the first place. The switch also comes at an ideal time considering iPhones are becoming less reliant on wired connections thanks to improvements in wireless charging, the increased popularity of Bluetooth accessories and Apple’s new MagSafe connection system.
But transitions like these take time. And there are still many unanswered questions about how Apple will comply with the EU’s decision. For example, we don’t know whether Apple will make the switch to USB-C in 2023 or if it will wait until 2024. We don’t know if Apple will use USB-C specifically for European iPhones or if it will become the standard globally.
What does seem clear, however, is that the arrival of a USB-C iPhone may be a step toward using one universal cable for everything. But it won’t happen overnight.
First published on Oct. 28, 2022 at 5:00 a.m. PT.