Stephen Russell, Secretary General of ANEC, the European consumer voice in standardisation, adds a discordant note to the fanfares that have greeted the release of the Apple iPhone 5. Although Apple has established itself as the cultural icon of the 21st century, its new connection interface sends echoes of a past made of proprietary systems, captive consumers and mountains of e-waste.
In what Wall Street calls a “disappointment”, Apple announced Tuesday it had sold 5 million units of the new iPhone 5 in just over three days . Granted, it is a fine line between disappointment and success. In the iPhone 5’s case, that fine line is best embodied by the smartphone’s power cord.
With the introduction of Lightning, its new proprietary connector, Apple has at a stroke rendered obsolete many millions of accessories that are compatible with the 30-pin dock connector first introduced with the iPod in 2003. Although Apple promises “a bunch of accessories to help you deal with that” , these fixes will not be made available to consumers free-of-charge.
Apple’s “innovation” reminds us how the lack of harmonisation among phone chargers is not only an inconvenience for consumers but also wasteful of environmental resources. Instead of seeing progress towards a single, universal charger for all small mobile devices (including tablets and digital cameras), in line with consumers’ expectations, it seems we are as far away as ever from reaching a common solution for only mobile phones.
L’esprit et la lettre
Although the use of Lightning as the connection through which the iPhone 5 is charged complies with the Voluntary Agreement that Apple – and other manufacturers – signed with the European Commission in 2009 on the harmonisation of smartphone chargers, Apple has chosen not to adopt the micro-USB solution favoured by its competitors and recommended in the Agreement.
Instead, it has cited a tiny clause in the Agreement that permits an extra adapter between the phone and the “universal” charger if the manufacturer wishes to use one.
Hence we have a situation where resources will be needed to manufacture the adapters, where consumers will have to bear extra costs for the adapters and will still need to carry several pieces of hardware with them when they go on holiday. What exactly is left from the spirit of the “Universal Charger” is not clear.
Nor is the value of the Voluntary Agreement. One could even hope that Apple is once again proving to be a visionary company by hastening the downfall of the very concept of Voluntary Agreements.
Apple products have become must-have items for hundreds of millions of consumers worldwide – a loyal fan base Apple seems ready to exploit by expecting everyone to pay for the fixes necessary to make Lightning compatible with all the existing devices using the 30-pin dock connector.
If Apple is not willing to adopt micro-USB, it could ensure that the adaptor to make Lightning compatible with micro-USB is made freely-available to consumers.
However, the adaptor will cost the equivalent of 19 EUROS in the EU. The adaptor to use other “iProducts”, such as hi-fi docking stations or iPods, will cost a further 29 EUROS.
Apple is now the largest publicly-traded corporation in the world by market capitalisation, with an estimated value of US$626 billion . Until now, it has been hugely successful in anticipating the needs and desires of consumers.
But it should not mistake lust for love as consumers are notoriously fickle. Just ask IBM, a company once synonymous with the PC. Or Nokia whose 1100 handset was once the world’s best-selling consumer electronics product .
Will the criticism of Lightning be a flash in the pan? Or will it be a prelude to a gathering storm? It is for Apple to decide.