Challenging Charging

Every now and then, Apple makes a decision that creates waves and ripples across the industry. Decisions surrounded in controversy, backlash on tech Twitter and furious wars in the YouTube comments section. The decision to axe the disc drive, the change from 30 pin to lightning and more recently, the infamous decision to axe the 3.5mm headphone jack.

This year Apple has made the decision to remove the charging brick from the box of all new iPhone and Apple Watch models. I have a number of thoughts on this but first, a history lesson that explains why Apple makes these decisions.

Seasons change

In 2010, Apple was embroiled in a war of words with Adobe. Adobe’s Flash player was the default video container on the web but was also a development platform. The problem was that Apple didn’t adopt Flash on the iPhone or iPad. This meant that some websites wouldn’t function as intended and often videos would be replaced with blank space. This seemed to be a serious flaw. Surely this made browsing on iOS crippled?

As it turns out Apple had been in deep discussion with Adobe to try and bring Flash to the iPhone and iPad. They wanted Adobe to get it working on iOS but without some of the trade offs with regards to battery life and security. Flash whilst a common place default on the web was a deeply flawed product. Adobe never did get Flash working in a reliable way for iOS and so Apple made the choice not to use it.

The decision not to use Flash sparked Adobe into spinning a bunch of negative press Apple’s way. Apple chose to remain silent for the most part but eventually Steve Jobs, Apple’s late CEO felt enough was enough and penned an open letter called ‘Thoughts on Flash’. Steve outlined the various reasons why Apple had chosen not to implement Flash on iOS. When asked about this at the D8 conference in 2010, Steve went on to explain that Apple likes to pick technologies that are in their spring and that Flash was in its metaphorical winter. Steve predicted that HTML5 would supplant Flash and provided a superior experience without the trade-offs. Initially Apple experienced a ton of backlash for this decision, but he turned out to be right and Flash went the way of the dodo.

When it boils down to it, Apple picks technologies that are in their ascendency rather than those that it can see being deprecated in the near future. The logic being that you can save a ton of work, energy and resources rather than trying to implement and support everything. This is also better for consumers in the long term even if the change stings initially.

Axed

  • Apple axed the floppy drive which encouraged wide spread adoption of CDROM and DVDROM across the industry. These discs could store more data, they were faster and consumers were already familiar with the form factor.
  • Eventually the CD/DVDROM were axed too. This pushed the industry to digital software distribution. Not only did this facilitate innovation in distribution, it also allowed for thinner, lighter consumer products like the MacBook Air, smartphones and tablets. It gave rise to streaming services like Netflix, Spotify and others.
  • The famous iPod 30 pin connector, a proprietary port for syncing iOS devices was eventually replaced by lightning. A smaller, reversible and digital connector. It was way ahead of it’s time offering some of the benefits of USB C before USB C was even a thought experiment. Lightning enabled precious space to be reclaimed inside iOS devices for new and innovative features like the TapTic engine.
  • In 2016 Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone. The company became the subject of thousands of memes for describing the decision to do so as ‘courage’. The functional reason for this decision was that once again, it enabled that space in the device to be used for other purposes like a larger battery but also sparked real innovation in wireless audio technology. Apple’s own AirPods have gone on to become a Fortune 500 company by revenue and almost every audio company is making wireless headphones now with great connectivity and audio quality.

But don’t we need power bricks?!

This latest controversial move is different to those mentioned above. The technologies that Apple chose to axe was because something better came along to replace them. Apple just gave the industry a nudge. In this case iPhone’s don’t suddenly have a miraculous never ending power source. The iPhone still requires a power brick. MagSafe doesn’t change that either. So what gives?

Most of us would accept that a smartphone is as fundamental to modern day living as cars and transportation. They’re valuable tools that we simply couldn’t do without. We upgrade our phone in some cases annually but certainly every 2-3 years for most of us. That means billions of power adaptors, power cords and other kinds of charging devices are already out there in the world. Whilst the phone that you bought with your last charging brick might now be obsolete (or at least a little slower), the charging brick will continue to function just fine.

Apple believes that most of us don’t need a new power brick. That we have an existing charger that we can continue to use. They claim this is better for the environment and I have to agree. By removing the charger from the box, less new power bricks need to be made which results in less mining of earth metals and the use of plastics. The boxes of consumer electronics can also be much smaller resulting in less planes, trains and trucks being required in distribution channels. That saves fuel and is another win for the environment.

This is all well and good but unlike those other axed technologies, we still need power bricks. But I think something else is happening here. Whilst this change isn’t for a functional purpose, the consequence is the same. It encourages the rest of the industry to follow suit. Samsung, Huawei and others might be jumping on the ‘bash Apple’ bandwagon but we all know they will copy Apple within the next few years. Just as they did with the headphone jack, Flash before that on Android, the disk drive before that in computers and countless other examples. The more companies that follow Apple’s lead, the more of a win this is for the environment.

Money, money, money….

Let’s address the two Elephants in the room. Of course Apple will save money by removing the power adaptor and even make some extra cash if you’re in the minority that genuinely need a new charger. But realistically how much money? I’d wager not that much in relative terms. The new iPhone models are made with more expensive components such as the 5G modem for starters, an OLED display on the less expensive iPhone 12 and double the base storage on the pricier Pro models. The increased costs of these components are in no way offset by removing a power brick from the box that costs pennies to make. Not even close.

The other thing though is that Apple has included a lightning to USB C cord in the box but for most consumers, their old iPhone power adaptor is probably USB A. That’s true but this also ignores the fact that your old USB A power brick shipped with a matching USB A to lightning cable. Apple still uses lightning on the iPhone so all of your old chargers will still work just fine. They might not offer the fastest charging speeds but if like me, you charge your phone overnight it isn’t that big a deal. Most of us probably share chargers around the house from older phones anyway.

There will be people that are totally new to iPhone that don’t have an old charger and need to buy a new brick. Some of those switchers may already own another USB C charger from other consumer electronics. I’d be willing to bet it’s a tiny percentage of people that genuinely need to buy a charger. Most of us if we’re totally honest do have chargers that we can continue to use. And that’s the point. We can debate the financial side of the decision but it doesn’t change the fact that the environmental benefits far outweigh the negatives. The minor inconvenience for a small percentage of consumers isn’t a good enough reason to mine materials unnecessarily and drill for more oil.

Bottom Line

This decision will change the industry and others will follow. That might be inconvenient for some of us for a little while, just like the removal of the disc drive 10 years ago. But in the long term our planet is better off for less e-waste and consumers will get used to the change. Apple for all its flaws and wether you support the change or not, is willing to take the heat. And I think that does deserve respect.

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