One Cord to Rule Them All

Prepare for the era of USB-C.

A USB-C cord styled to look like a smile
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

My friends with iPhones let me hang out with them even though I’m an Android guy. (Generous of them, I know.) Our technological differences mean there are certain rifts between us: green bubbles in iMessage, my inability to FaceTime, and, crucially, the incompatibility of our phone ports. Although Androids come in many shapes and sizes—some of them fold in half, even—they share something in common: the little round hole the charging cord goes into.

The large majority of Android phones use USB Type-C cables for charging, as do many recent wireless headphones, video-game controllers, and laptops. Some desk lights, portable fans, and electric shavers do too. That little charging port is everywhere, a rare bit of technological consensus in a world otherwise defined by a million different apps and setups—sure, you may struggle to use a new gizmo, but you’ll at least know how to plug it in. The iPhone, though, uses something called Lightning, a proprietary design introduced by Apple a decade ago as a replacement for yet another Apple-only plug: the super-wide 30-pin connector you might remember from your dusty old iPod. Curiously, the phone is now the only major Apple product that doesn’t support charging via USB-C. The basic iPad switched last month, and the MacBook switched years ago—even newer MacBook models with a “MagSafe” plug can still get juiced up via their USB-C ports.

And so, the iPhone stands alone. It’s annoying—so annoying, in fact, that the European Union has decided to step in. It recently adopted rules that will push Apple over to USB-C: “By the end of 2024, all mobile phones, tablets and cameras sold in the EU will have to be equipped with a USB Type-C charging port,” the European Parliament said in a press release.

Apple will “have to comply,” Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said in an interview last month with The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t definitively say that the change will apply outside Europe (and a spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment)—but it’s hard to imagine Apple, a company obsessed with clean design above all else, building two distinct versions of its flagship product. USB-C is nearly certain to be the one cable to charge everything, iPhone included, sometime in the next two years. Harmony at last.

This is nice, because USB-C is in fact superior in a few key ways. It can charge phones faster, for one thing, and it’s also faster for transferring data. And like Lightning, these cables have the same plug on each side, so you don’t have to figure out which end goes into the charger and which goes into the phone, and neither end can be turned upside down.

But mostly, USB-C is useful simply because it’s a standard. “We all have too many cords lying around, and we’re frustrated when it comes time to find the right one,” says Justin Brookman, the director of technology policy at Consumer Reports. “It’s confusing, it’s frustrating, and the market hasn’t adequately solved it.”

Why did Apple take so long to make the change? The company is, after all, a board member of the USB Implementers Forum, the nonprofit that promotes and supports the USB standard. In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Joswiak implied that there are engineering reasons for maintaining Lightning. Perhaps this is the case from Apple’s perspective: The cable is engineered with a built-in chip, which Apple uses to enforce a lucrative licensing program. Companies that manufacture Lightning cables have to join Apple’s MFi Program for $99 a year, then pay Apple an undisclosed royalty for its products. Apple won’t receive that cut if the iPhone switches to USB-C, because the company doesn’t own that standard.

Joswiak also mentioned in the interview that more than a billion people currently use Lightning cables, and that it would be “better environmentally” if they could keep using them. It’s true that electronic obsolescence never helps the planet, but change is inevitable. Here, at least, Apple will switch to a standard that many people already own. (They certainly do if they have any other recent Apple products.) The EU, for its part, argues that the switch will decrease waste, because consumers will be able to use one charger for all their devices.

Of course, there’s the elephant in the room—or a tangled mess of cables that looks like one, anyway. People adopt new technology unevenly. On my desk right now, I have four different kinds of USB cables for connecting to various old devices, along with assorted dongles for plugging older USB Type-A cables into USB Type-C. What’s to say some other cable won’t come along and replace USB-C, putting us right back where we started? Indeed, the connector is nearly a decade old.

EU policy allows for some flexibility when the next cord—USB-D?—rolls around: “Any technological developments in wired charging can be reflected in a timely adjustment of technical requirements/specific standards under the Radio Equipment Directive,” the commission states. It’s an extremely Eurocratic way of saying, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” That probably won’t happen anytime soon. The design of USB-C can support advances to the greater USB technological protocol, which means the small port in all of these new devices should be the right shape for years to come—the perfect fit for me and my iPhone-owning friends.