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Apple checkmating regulators with wireless charging push. But it is exposing its technology

Since 2012, Apple has used the lightning connector on its iPhones. But the industry has leaned in favour of USB-Type C ports.

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Following in the footsteps of a European Union regulation, the Indian government has mandated the adoption of a standard USB Type C charging port for all mobile phones from 2025 onwards.

This is not the first time India has followed the EU’s lead: A recent Competition Commission of India (CCI) ruling against Google—where it pushed the tech giant to accommodate third-party app stores within its Play Store—was also inspired by the European regulator. But this new ruling throws a spanner in the plans of just a single brand—Apple.

Since 2012, Apple has used the lightning connector on its iPhones. Of course, Android manufacturers for almost a decade used micro USB, which still shows up in some cheap phones, but more or less, since 2015, the industry has gradually adopted Type C, with Apple being the only exception.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, Apple’s head of marketing, Greg Joswiak, admitted to annoyance about the EU rules. He also admitted that Apple will be forced to comply with the ruling and iPhone models sold in the EU, probably globally by 2025, will use USB Type C. But there was an element of vagueness in his admission.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, the wireless power consortium announced that Apple was contributing MagSafe to the next Qi wireless charging standard. It is a big deal because MagSafe is Apple’s proprietary take on wireless charging, which first emerged with the iPhone 12 in 2020.

Why would Apple give away its secret sauce to everyone? I believe pressure from regulators worldwide for Apple to adopt USB Type C is forcing its hand. Apple makes a lot of money from MagSafe-certified accessories like cases, wireless chargers, wireless power banks and even magnetic docks. But the most proprietary company in the world is giving away its standard? Why is that?

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The port-less iPhone

Apple has long envisioned an iPhone with no buttons and no connection ports. It wants to provide a fully wireless experience to users, and needless to say, Apple has made strides toward achieving this vision over the last decade.

Its first step was the creation of the ‘Lightning Connector’, which emerged before USB Type C in 2012. The next major step happened in 2016 with the launch of the iPhone 7, when it famously removed the 3.5mm headphone jack. Apart from this, it also pulled the physical home button from its iPhones and replaced it with a virtual one that simulated the feel of a real tactile push using the tactic engine and its vibration system.

In 2017, the iPhone X removed the concept of the home button altogether. And 2023 could represent the next step as the iPhone 15 models, at least the ‘Pro’ models, are rumoured to have similar buttons for the volume and power switch as the iPhone 7. Apple will likely remove the mechanical side buttons and replace them with a system that simulates the tactile feedback.

Apple is very adept at this technology, which it first used on the trackpad of the MacBook in 2015. And now, apart from the Lightning or USB Type C port, the iPhone may not have any other physical moving part by the end of this year.

By the time the iPhone 16 is released in 2024, Apple could theoretically get around all the regulations surrounding USB Type C and release a fully symmetrical iPhone that is only charged wirelessly via MagSafe.

Apple’s perseverance is ratified by the fact that an iPhone’s USB data transfer speeds over a wired connection are still pathetically slow at USB 2.0. Apple advocates using AirDrop, the wireless peer-to-peer data transfer tech, which works seamlessly with other gadgets in its ecosystem, be it Mac, iPad, iPhone, or iPod.

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Envisioning a wireless iPhone

Apple loves to simplify its products and eliminate elements of failure. Reliability was an issue with the original home button, so the mechanical version was replaced with a simulated one. This could happen with the power and volume buttons later this year.

With the 3.5mm headphone jack, Apple wanted to eliminate a dated component. It wanted to create more space for things like batteries, which some can call hogwash. And it wanted industrial design symmetry that was advocated for a long time by its former Chief Design Officer, the iconic Sir Jonathan Paul Ive.

The removal of the Lightning cable port could have benefits. First, this charging port is a source of failure, as a short circuit could ruin not only the lightning cable and port but the entire logic board of an iPhone. It is something that usually cannot be repaired.

Other than this, it will also drive more MagSafe charger sales, which are more expensive than the standard lightning cable and don’t have many third-party alternatives.

Also, the peak wireless charging speed on an iPhone is 15W, marginally slower than the 20W wired charging speeds offered by Apple. And wireless charging speeds are getting faster each year, so an average iPhone customer will not feel the difference.

Also read: Tech gadgets of 2022: A boring year of Apple but its iPhone and wearable series thrived

Checkmate to regulators

While regulators around the world are still talking about the charging plug format, Apple is thinking of the future. A decade down the line, everything will be charged via induction—even electric cars.

Apple wants to get ahead. It wanted Lightning to be the standard for all devices in 2012. But USB Type C was being developed by Intel simultaneously. It incorporated the hyper-speed Thunderbolt protocol, and manufacturers rallied behind it as a result.

Apple doesn’t want history to repeat itself. By contributing significantly to the next-generation Qi wireless charging format, Apple is waiving off its patents, allowing every manufacturer access to the technology it pioneered but keeping up with the times.

MagSafe involves more than just the induction-based charging method and IP around high-intensity magnets that allow the charging puck to stick to the device. It includes a microcontroller inside the device that enables the operating system to recognise that a MagSafe-compliant accessory is in use.

Apple could offer the core of the technology to others, making it the industry standard for wireless charging as many manufacturers are now offering faster 50W wireless charging speeds through proprietary charging docks. Since MagSafe goes beyond charging and is pervasive with Apple users, it has more ubiquity, even if it is slower from the perspective of charging time.

Apple will likely also have a “designed iPhone “programme that already exists for products by companies like Belkin, which has an assortment of MagSafe-compliant accessories. It will also allow it to eke out more royalties.

At the end of the day, regulators across the world have waited too long to impose a standardised charging format. Wireless charging is increasingly becoming ubiquitous in phones that cost more than Rs 40,000. In the case of Apple, all its latest phones now have wireless charging, and improvements in technology in the next 1-2 years, thanks to MagSafe and the new Qi standard, will likely mean an iPhone that doesn’t need wired charging.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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