The EU parliament passed a new law stating that, from late 2024, small electronics such as smartphones, tablets, handheld consoles and cameras will all need to use the same type of charger (a USB-C charger, specifically). This means that a single charger can be used across different devices, from the same manufacturer as well as across manufacturer.
The new law aims to reduce e-waste, by reducing the number of chargers that are disposed of because the manufacturer decided to change product design, or because the customer changed to a different brand. It is also meant to reduce prices for consumers through the cost savings that manufacturers might achieve by producing only one type of charger (i.e., economies of scale); and to increase convenience, as consumers will no longer need to carry different chargers for each device.
While this rule applies to EU countries, only, it is possible that USB-C chargers will become the de facto standard in other countries and areas of the world. Why?
As Youngjin Yoo, Kalle Lyytinen and Heedong Yang write in “The role of standards in innovation and diffusion of broadband mobile services: The case of South Korea”, published in the Journal of Strategic Information Systems:
“(T) he success or failure of a standard is not determined simply based on technical merit, but by the configuration of the actor network and how the standard achieves the status of an obligatory passage point making the associated network irreversible. Also, standards are used to mobilize actors in different realms and align their interests, which creates the socio-technical contexts in which individual actors can choose their strategic options and strategies.”
Yoo and his colleagues are referring to three types of actors – the regulatory regime, the innovation system, and the market place – that shape the adoption and diffusion of standards, as thus:
This framework can help us understand what is likely to happen in the charger market. Let’s start with the Regulatory Regime actor. Even though politicians and governments in other countries have also spoken about the problems of electronic waste, as far as I am aware, for now, there are no significant movements in other jurisdictions towards imposing a similar law. Likewise, there are no movements towards forbidding the USB-C format. So, as far as regulatory actors are concerned, the door is open for standardisation, though there is no push for doing so.
As for the market, opinions are divided. A quick search of electronics’ review articles tells me that the USB-C charger is seen as a better product because it is much faster than most alternatives. It is also possible that manufacturers will stop including a charger with their products (in fact, I seem to remember receiving a fitness wearable for Christmas, several years ago, which had a charging cable but no charger). This will help manufacturers cut costs, which might be translated in slightly lower prices for buyers. These factors would support a move to standardisation, from the market’ side.
On the other hand, I found an article suggesting that USB-C chargers might cause phones to overheat and damage the battery, which would result in consumers having to replace their devices sooner than otherwise needed (sorry, no idea how accurate this article is). It also seems that iPhone users really like the lightning connector because it is easier to put in and holds in place better than alternatives. In addition, if manufacturers stop including a charger with their products, this would be a hassle and additional cost for those customers that do not yet have that particular type of charger. These factors suggest some resistance to USB-C chargers, specifically among smartphone users. Though, there is a growing appetite for wireless charging. If this format takes off, it will mute the discussion around the advantages and limitations of different cable chargers for small electronics (phones, watches, headphones…) and, thus, remove any remaining barriers to standardisation, at least from the customer side.
Thus, it seems that the key actors determining whether USB-C chargers will become the de facto standard in other countries or not are those within the innovation system itself (device manufacturers, middleware providers, etc…). Let’s unpack the pros and cons of standardisation for these actors.
Drawing on the literature from International Marketing, we can say that the benefits of rolling out the USB-C charger as a standard to other territories will include:
- Many companies already operate in a global market (i.e., EU plus other territories), be it as sellers of electronic devices or as buyers of middleware, meaning that they will need to make / sell this type of charger for some of their markets, already.
- They can achieve significant cost savings in product design, R&D, advertising, customer support, planning and control by reducing the number of models made / sold.
- If the supply of the associated technology is elastic, we might also see a decrease in production costs (I don’t know – is it? Or is it more like the supply of chips, where we are having a global shortage with associated increase in prices?).
On the other hand:
- It’s not always the best standard that wins (think about the videotape format war), meaning that customers may lose in terms of product performance.
- Standardisation reduces flexibility and stifles innovation.
- If the supply of the associated technology is inelastic, we may see delays in production (as it is happening with cars) and an increase in production costs and prices
- Factors such as legal restraints, transport and distribution costs, tariff barriers and duties, may favour local manufacture and, thus, remove the economic incentive for standardisation.
What is your prediction: Will we see a spill-over of the EU parliament’s decision to other countries and products?