Democrats are calling on the U.S. Commerce Department to standardize charging ports on smartphones and other consumer electronics, a move inspired by a similar law passed by the EU.
Elizabeth Warren and a handful of other Democrats penned an open letter in which they claimed to be fighting a conspiracy of “planned obsolescence,” as if releasing devices with new charging ports somehow renders devices of previous generations obsolete.
They also made obviously exaggerated claims of financial burden caused from buying chargers and the inconvenience of sometimes not being able to charge up your smartphone (citing an EU study that claimed 38 percent reported this problem, without mentioning only 21 percent said it was significant.) The letter’s only coherent goal—to reduce waste—is something Apple and Samsung are already addressing by not shipping phones with charging bricks anymore. (In fact, Apple has argued the law could produce more waste, by rendering accessories obsolete.) The letter ended by urging the Commerce Department to “restore sanity” and “certainty” for consumers.
When similar rules were being debated in Europe, Apple warned that it “stifles innovation rather than encouraging it.” The pleas from Cupertino were hastily dismissed as cynical self-interested corporate lobbying. However, anyone familiar with the history of Apple’s product development will know that eschewing industry standards has been key to Apple’s success, and moved the whole world of consumer electronics forward. “Think Different” isn’t just a slogan, it is a fundamental part of Apple’s DNA.
When Apple announced the iMac in 1998, people were perplexed it didn’t have a floppy drive. Who uses CDs?! A decade later, Apple announced the MacBook Air without a CD drive, people were shocked—who doesn’t use CDs!!? In 2016, Apple replaced USB ports in its MacBook Air lineup with USB-C and got a similar response—reliance on dongles was chastised and many mourned the loss of Apple’s trip-resistant magnetic charging ports.
Fast forward to 2022 and—ironically—the EU has mandated USB-C charging ports by 2024, with the U.S. potentially following suit. Meanwhile consumers are celebrating Apple reintroducing magnetic “magsafe” charging ports. While the EU won’t prohibit Magsafe—since MacBooks also have mandated USB-C charging ports—consumers will almost certainly opt for Magsafe over the mandated USB-C chargers, rendering the intended effects of the law moot.
Similarly, when Apple released a phone without a physical keyboard, competitors laughed. And when Apple removed the auxiliary input for headphones in the iPhone—people lost their minds.
In the aftermath, Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, was asked why the reason for the change, he answered: “The reason to move on: courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us.” He was vilified, but he was right—that courage has made Apple what it is today: the most successful company in history in terms of market cap and cultural impact
Had the federal government been centrally planning consumer electronics design in the ways proposed recently, would Apple even exist? Would the iPhone? Or the iPod?
I posed the question to Tony Fadell—the man behind the iPod and iPhone—whether the iPod would have failed had Apple been forced to use USB 1.0, rather than its proprietary FireWire cable.
His answer? The iPod would have flopped.
Why? The first iPod used Apple’s Firewire port, rather than USB, because it could transfer data and charge the battery at practical speeds, all at the same time. Having to wait hours for music to sync to your iPod, then charge it from a wall socket would have been too cumbersome for most users and wouldn’t “just work” as all Apple products are known to do.
This is the kind of minutia regulators can’t foresee, and that could have a hidden butterfly effect. If the iPod failed, we wouldn’t have the iPhone or iPad. (Fadell stated he didn’t specifically think the EU laws and proposed U.S. ones were problematic, arguing that faster wireless charging would make the laws irrelevant.)
Fadell’s point about wireless charging brings to mind a potential unintended consequence of mandating charging ports. While the EU law specifies that devices with wired charging must use USB-C, will similar laws in the U.S. and other countries be as specific?
Could rules intended to reduce the consumption of wires risk outlawing devices that don’t use wires for charging at all? Shortsighted lawmakers could risk outlawing a wireless future to reduce the consumption of wires. Would mandatory charging ports see consumers opt for what they know—wired charging, rather than wireless?
What about wafer-thin, flexible screens? Or wireless earbuds, so small you can’t even see them in? A USB-C port is 2.40 millimeters thick—that means devices any thinner or smaller that aren’t only chargeable wirelessly would be prohibited.
Regulation is about predictability and familiarity, bringing order out of chaos. Thinking similar. Innovation is about unpredictability and unfamiliarity, it is about thinking differently. Creativity loves constraints, but it doesn’t love rules. When regulations mandate means, rather than ends, they create a box which to think outside of is prohibited by law.
All lawmakers should acknowledge this tension and dynamic.
Speaking more broadly, the freedom to “think different” is a key reason why the permissionless nature of market-based economies breeds innovation. It’s why Apple created Mac OS X and North Korea merely copied it, rebranding it “Red Star OS.” It’s why China copies western innovation relentlessly, even making it a key foreign policy tactic. It’s the reason Russia stole its COVID-19 vaccine blueprint and released it as its own, before western regulators approved it.
Thinking differently didn’t just make Apple great, it contributed to progress in the free world. It’s why freedom matters, it’s why freedom creates prosperity, and it’s why Apple products should continue to be “designed by Apple in California” not “by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”