A USB-C iPhone won’t kill the Lightning cable… yet

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In a rare occurrence this week, Apple provided a tangible clue to the future of the iPhone. Company executives confirmed that Apple comply with the mandate of the European Union that all phones in the region adopt USB-C as the common charging port for smartphones in 2024. This means that future iPhones will need 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 EU requirements. Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference, said the company “has no choice” and that Apple will “comply with local laws” as it does around the world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Lightning cable is dying out just yet. 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 has become more and more common in 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 tech critics alike have been waiting for USB-C to come to the iPhone. An iPhone X that had been 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 cable to charge your iPhone, iPad, and Mac? The new EU mandate represents a step towards a simpler long-term charging experience. However, there is also the possibility that the transition period will cause some friction, as consumers may switch chargers to power new iPhones alongside legacy accessories.

There are a handful of products that require a Lightning connection for wired charging besides the iPhone. Such devices include AirPods headphones, the AirPods Max, the first-generation Apple Pencil (which is interestingly the only model that works with the new USB-C equipped iPad), the Magic Mouse, the Magic Trackpad, and the Magic Keyboard. That means owners of these devices could find themselves swapping cables if they buy an iPhone with USB-C in the future.

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

It’s also important to remember that not all iPhone buyers opt for the newest model. Apple often offers discounts on older versions once a new iPhone arrives. Take your current lineup for example, which still includes last year iPhone 13 and the 2020 iPhone 12. Apple also kept the iPhone 11 in the lineup at a lower price of $499 after presenting the iPhone 13 in September 2021. If Apple keeps up that tradition, there will likely be some Lightning-powered iPhones in its 2023 lineup as well.

Although many buyers may flock to the newer iPhone, there is a sizeable market for older iPhones. The iPhone 11 was the fifth best-selling smartphone in 2021 even though it was released in 2019, according to Counterpoint Research. Sales of the 4-year-old iPhone 11, iPhone SE, and iPhone XR accounted for 15% of US iPhone sales in the March 2022 quarter, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Refurbished iPhones are also popular, with Apple accounting for more than 40% of the global secondary phone market, according to a report by Counterpoint Research. Considering that all iPhones since 2012 charge via Lightning, it’s safe to say that those who buy refurbished models in the future will want to stick with their Lightning cables. That’s particularly relevant considering demand for refurbished phones jumped 15% in 2021 as customers looked to avoid high prices and make more sustainable purchasing decisions, Counterpoint also reported.

People may also be inclined to keep their current phones longer as inflation cuts other everyday expenses. Global smartphone shipments are expected to decline 6.5% in 2022 as inflation has weakened demand, according to International Data Corporation. The average age of trade-in smartphones also reached 3.5 years for the first time, according to Assurant, an insurance provider 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 will allow the latest iPads, Macs and eventually iPhones to be charged with a single cable, which is precisely why the EU made USB-C mandatory in the first place. The change also comes at an ideal time considering iPhones are becoming less reliant on wired connections thanks to improvements in wireless charging, the growing popularity of Bluetooth accessories and Apple’s new MagSafe connection system.

But transitions like these take time. And there are still many unanswered questions about how Apple will comply with the EU decision. For example, we don’t know if Apple will switch to USB-C in 2023 or wait until 2024. We don’t know if Apple will use USB-C specifically for European iPhones or if it will become the global standard.

However, what seems clear is that the arrival of a USB-C iPhone can be a step towards the use of a universal cable for everything. But it won’t happen overnight.

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