When the gods dance...

Saturday, September 15, 2012


iPhone 5 Misses Standardisation Opportunity


Perhaps more concerned about renewing its grip on the accessory market than avoiding more pointless electronic waste, Apple has apparently reneged on its 2009 commitment to the European Commission to use the micro-USB standard in its future products.

In amongst all the details of Apple's new phone and the incremental improvements it has made on earlier designs, one change that I'd been waiting for stood out. With this new design, Apple has finally followed the rest of the industry and mothballed the proprietary charging and data connector they were using, with its distinctive -- and presumably patented -- 30-pin design.

I'd been expecting some change following Apple's involvement in an industry standardisation activity a few years ago; Apple signed up to use the micro-USB standard along with everyone else, and were the last to make the switch away from their proprietary connectors.

Environmental Concerns

The standard involved arose out of concern by and co-ordination from the European Commission. Every manufacturer of mobile phones was using different approaches to delivering effectively the same function - 5 volt power plus high-speed data connections to computers.

The result was bad for pretty much everyone, creating endless redundant gadgets with each phone generation, none of which were compatible with other phones. In particular, consumers were faced with the need to carry multiple chargers if they carried multiple devices, and with the premature redundancy of peripherals that connected to the phone if they switched brands. Manufacturers, hopeful their spin on the same idea might win the accessory market lock-in lottery this time, continued to churn out new variants on connectors with every generation.

To avoid pointless extra electronic waste -- as well as provide the convenience it would create for consumers -- the European Commission strongly encouraged the industry in 2007 to agree a standard for power and data connectors.

The result in 2009 was a pair of new industry standards - CENELEC EN 62684 and ETSI EN 301489-34, which together finessed the pre-existing micro-USB standard and set it as the new standard for phone power and data connections in Europe. Aware that such standards need a little help to get established, the European Commission went on to seek a Memorandum of Understanding from all the important players. Everyone - including Apple - agreed to set 2011 as a target for implementation.

As the phone market is fairly fast-moving, every other manufacturer easily met the deadline. Despite the long notice period, Apple stuck with its proprietary connector, and even the iPhone 4 retained it. So a change in connector in 2012 came as no surprise.

Lost Opportunity

The only problem is, Apple has reneged on that commitment to the European Commission to change to micro-USB like everyone else. Instead, they have introduced a completely new proprietary connector. Dubbed "Lightning", it is quite unlike any other connector in the industry. But it appears to only offer power and data connections -- with HDMI via a dongle, which is also possible with micro-USB -- while forcing customers to once again either carry two chargers or spend money to buy an adaptor that is only useful for Apple phones.

Yes, they are offering to sell customers an adaptor. But that doesn't actually achieve the waste reduction objective they signed up for; in fact it creates more electronic waste for the future to deal with, in the form of adaptors that only serve a single device family. More than that, the fact it's an option extra undermines the ubiquity of the standard.

Why has Apple done this? Nokia, for example, innovated with wireless charging but still kept the micro-USB connector in the Lumia 920. I asked Apple to comment, but so far they've failed to do so. Apparently Lightning doesn't offer compatibility with earlier iPod/iPhone/iPad accessories either, even via the 30-pin-to-Lightning adaptor they will be selling, so I can only guess that they cherish the power to junk earlier accessories and then create an exclusive after-market in new accessories using their -- once again presumably patented -- proprietary connector. Locking customers in - and competitors out - appears to be a higher priority for Apple than honouring standardisation commitments or avoiding unnecessary electronic waste.

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