Electronic-waste, innovation, competition, and international standard-setting: The debate on a universal phone-charger solution

BBC World News TV interviews Professor Birgitte Andersen, CEO of the Big Innovation Centre

Apple’s Objection To New EU Rule For Universal Phone Chargers


Professor Birgitte Andersen, CEO of the Big Innovation Centre, spoke with BBC World News about the new rule proposed by the European Commission for a universal charger solution for phones and other small electronic devices. Apple has already put forward their objection against this rule.

Birgitte explains the different facets of this story in a live interview with presenter Christian Fraser focusing on the current debate on electronic e-waste, innovation, competition, and international standard-setting.

Here’s a link to the BBC story

Professor Birgitte Andersen’s key points addressed in larger context


Click to watch the recording

A Drop In The Ocean For A Major Sustainability Problem


Waste from electronic devices is a huge sustainability problem. There are mountains of micro-electronic waste pilling all around us (such as computers, motherboards, cell phones, servers, screens, printers, scanners, keyboards, watches, Fitbits, and chargers). It’s called e-waste. Only about 15% of this e-waste is currently recycled, and so it represents about 70% of the total toxic waste (according to the youth group ‘Do Something, and a similar number is estimated by several other sources).

The waste from chargers is only a tiny tiny drop in this, and so even if the EU argument is right in that we need new ways to decrease waste, this is not the ideal place to start if we wish to solve the sustainability issue.

However, the ‘waste argument’ is a fantastic way to mobilise a regulation on ‘one unified standard’. There are social movements and demonstrations on the street to advocate for more sustainability, but people don’t demonstrate for ‘mobile charger standards’. Through this regulation, we can persuade people for using one standard.

Also – by the way – the lifespan of a typical charger is only 1 to 2 years so we will still throw away these devices anyway (standardized or not), and so for all these reasons we may still not solve a massive waste problem even via standardisation.


But It’s Really About The Competition


Smartphones are becoming crucial globally to all people (for managing our social and professional life, as well as for various other aspects from entertainment to health). Almost everyone in a household has a phone and they have a charger, so standardization is important for practical reasons and for competition reasons around standardisation. Apple is already dominating the cell phone market, including in the EU, through their successful smartphone features and their integration with other devices. Apple wants to hold on to the dominant standard through various market mechanisms, in a so-called networked economy. And they try to sell cheaply (or not so cheap) while making money from chargers, adapters, and other electronic applications. Hence, if chargers become standardised, a market for this is potentially gone.

However, if there is ‘one standard’ there will be more space for entrepreneurs to innovate compatible technology devices. Common standards always increase innovation and competition. 

EU similarly wanted to unbundle the Media Player from Microsoft Windows in 2015 and it won an antitrust court ruling against Microsoft on this matter. Standard control and market dominance is important. There was also the court case – Apple versus Samsung – regarding the smartphone design at the same time.


A Clash Of Standard-Setting Culture


Another issue is the fundamental difference between the stately regulations in the EU compared with the free-market mechanism in the USA for standard setting. China and many other countries have a state model as well.

Big companies and the USA want markets to decide their own standards (the American Model) but in Europe, it is decided through state regulation (we are also used to 27 member states and a single European market). It’s about competition policy and anti-trust rulings. This is because we don’t have companies like Apple and Microsoft, but we have entrepreneurs and suppliers. We don’t aim towards having one company with all market control.

We just do things differently – that different global regions have different systems is often referred to as ‘the variety of capitalism’, but it can also cause huge clashes when it comes to regulating global tech-giants.


Why Apple Won’t Change Their Phone Chargers Even When They Have Adopted EU Standards For Their Other Products (Computers And Tablets)


  1. Apple receives revenue from their chargers and adapters, and they already control a significant standard in the market with this.
  2. It is also a way to ensure the continued use of the Apple cell phones – which allows their devices to have the largest market penetration!
  3. There may also be a technical reason. Perhaps, the Apple cell phones are designed around an internal standard and there may be safety or security issues with switching.

What If Apple Loses Their Objection Against The Ruling Of EU


If Apple loses against the ruling of EU, they can give away their standard for free (like Philips Electronics did with the cassette for their cassette player) – and hey! – Apple may gain some control via a free standard since other products will then be able to use this standard.

Apple can also include two plugs (the EU standard and the Apple standard) in their iPhones and design a business model around this.



I don’t think Apple will fight so hard against this, as they make their money in other places and are already innovating. They will get over it. Apple is one of the Big Five American information technology companies, along with Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. Right now, they are just considering the costs of switching and their potential lost revenue in the short term.

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