A USB-C iPhone Won’t Kill the Lightning Cable… Yet

In a rare event this week, Apple provided a tangible clue about the iPhone’s future. Company executives confirmed that Apple will comply with the mandate of the European Union that all phones in the region adopt USB-C as the common smartphone charging port in 2024. This means future iPhones will have to move away from the Lightning connector, that is exists since 2012.

The transition to USB-C seems inevitable for the iPhone given the new requirements of the EU. Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of global marketing, speaks at the Wall Street Journal Tech Live Conference, said 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 already dying out. 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 is increasingly common on Apple products. It’s present on every iPad in the company’s current portfolio, except for the 2021 ninth-generation iPad. You’ll also find USB-C ports on Apple’s MacBook Pro and Air lineup.

But consumers and technical critics equal waited for USB-C to arrive on the iPhone. An iPhone X which was 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 is a step towards a simpler charging experience in the long term. But there’s also a chance the transition period could create some friction, as consumers may be bouncing between chargers to power new iPhones, in addition to older accessories.

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There are a handful of products that require a Lightning connection for wired charging, aside from the iPhone. Such devices include: AirPods earplugs, the AirPods Max, the first-generation Apple Pencil (which, oddly enough, is 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 may still be swapping cables if they buy an iPhone with USB-C in the future.

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET’s request for comment about whether it plans to keep the Lightning port on future versions of these products.

It’s also important to remember that not every iPhone shopper opts for the latest model. Apple often discounts older versions as soon as a new iPhone arrives. Take for example the current lineup, which still includes last year’s iPhone 13 and the 2020 iPhone 12. Apple also kept the iPhone 11 in the lineup for a lower price of $499 after the introduction of the iPhone 13 in September 2021. If Apple continues that tradition, there will likely be a number of Lightning-powered iPhones in the 2023 range as well.

While many buyers flock to the latest iPhone, there is a significant 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 the 4-year-old iPhone XR accounted for 15% of US iPhone sales in the March 2022 quarter, according to Research partners for consumer intelligence.

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Refurbished iPhones are also popular, with Apple accounting for more than 40% of the global secondary phone market, according to a separate Counterpoint Research report. Since all iPhones have been charged via Lightning since 2012, it’s safe to say that those who buy refurbished models in the future will want to keep their Lightning cables. This is particularly relevant as the demand for refurbished phones grew by 15% in 2021 as customers sought to avoid high prices and make more sustainable purchasing decisions. Counterpoint also reported.

People may also be tempted to hold on to their current phone for longer as inflation in other daily expenses decreases. Global smartphone shipments are expected to fall 6.5% in 2022 as inflation has weakened demand, according to the International Data Society. The average age of traded-in smartphones has also reached 3.5 years for the first time, according to insurance agentan insurer that also helps companies develop device trade-in programs. The more legacy iPhones remain in use, the more Lightning cables will remain in circulation.

In the long run, the move to USB-C will be an improvement for iPhone owners. The change makes it possible to charge the most recent iPads, Macs and eventually iPhones with a single cable – which is exactly why the EU made USB-C mandatory in the first place. The move also comes at an ideal time, as iPhones become less reliant on wired connections thanks to improvements in wireless charging, the increased popularity of Bluetooth accessories and Apple’s new MagSafe connection system.

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But such transitions 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 whether it will wait until 2024. We don’t know if Apple will use USB-C specifically for European iPhones or if it’s the global standard.

What seems clear is that the arrival of a USB-C iPhone could be a step towards using one universal cable for everything. But it won’t happen overnight.

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