Optionally environmental

A lot of ink has been spilt (a lot of bytes have been published is more accurate, but probably not as catchy) regarding Apple’s decision to remove the power adapter and headphones from all new iPhones sold following the launch of the iPhone 12 series. This includes the iPhone 11, iPhone XR and iPhone SE models that have shipped with these accessories since their launch, but will no longer do so going forward.

Apple reasons that this move is better for the environment due to less packaging used, which results in less transportation required. As expected, the hot takes posits this as either environmentally disingenuous or a money grab due to more items needing to be bought, all things being historically equal.

My take on this is that Apple did not go far enough – Apple needs to remove the Lightning cable as well. I’ll explain why after a little history lesson.


Power through history

Pre-iPhone and USB power, every mobile phone included a unique power adapter (or charger). It had to be unique because power adapters in this era had specific voltage (measured in volts or V) and current (measured in amperes or A). Using an adapter with a higher voltage or lower current than the phone requirements can lead to fires and explosions. Also in this era, the cable was permanently attached to the adapter. In short, every device needed its own adapter, were rarely interchangeable, and you needed a whole new adapter even if just the cable was damaged.

Next came the iPhone 5W adapter era, which encompassed the first-generation iPhone up to iPhone 11. The 5W adapter is named for its watts (W), where 5 is the product of it providing 5V and 1A. As a separate USB-A cable and power adapter, you could choose to charge from a computer, though that was unlikely. Most computers at the iPhone’s launch in 2007 were USB 2.0, which were only capable of providing half the charging speed at 2.5W. USB 3.0 was only introduced in 2008 with 4.5W charging, which was still less than the 5W adapter. Not helping matters through most of the 2010s was that most computers shipped with limited USB 3.0 ports, which many consumers preferred to use for fast data transfers with portable storage instead.

This was also the era of massive proliferation of USB power adapters. Many were cheap, both in prices as low as RM5, and in components. The price savings was achieved by using poor quality components that were unable to deliver the stated power ratings. Leading to higher voltage and/or lower current. Leading to fires and explosions. So in summary, the included 5W adapter delivered a fast and trusted charging experience.

Today, we are in the USB Power Delivery (USB PD) and wireless charging era. USB PD solved most of our charging issues with USB-C port universality, 2-way power (the traditional USB-A is power out only), variable voltage and current with automatic selection, and up to 100W of power transfer. A more convenient way to charge is through Qi wireless where you place your phone on a pad with a small sweet spot. The caveat here is that if you miss this spot when placing your phone, or your phone vibrates off this spot, your phone will not charge.


Power options

Apple introduced iPhone MagSafe charging as a way to solve the Qi sweet spot issue, but they are not alone. Reputable companies such as Anker and Belkin are at the forefront of innovating in the charging space with multiple device chargers and the usage of gallium nitride (GaN) to make chargers more portable.

To the consumer, this means that there is now an abundance of choice:

  • Do you prefer wireless? If yes, the included Lightning cable becomes e-waste.
  • Do you prefer a different cable length? A shorter cable is better for charging from a computer or power bank, while a longer cable may be needed based on the location of the power source in your home or car. Using wireless charging usually requires a longer cable as the pad is mostly centred on furniture, compared to just at the edge of furniture for wired options. In this case, the included Lightning cable becomes e-waste.
  • Do you want to connect to or charge from a computer with only USB-A? If yes, the included Lightning cable becomes e-waste.
  • Do you have other devices to charge? If yes, you may prefer an adapter with a larger power supply. Apple sells 30W, 61W and 96W models for various MacBooks that can also charge iPhones. Side note – thanks to USB PD’s variable voltage and current, any adapter with a higher wattage will work, for example, a 65W adapter in place of a 61W.
  • Do you want to simultaneously charge multiple devices? If yes, you may prefer an adapter with multiple USB ports. Some even have wireless pads included. Side note – while you can charge many small devices, it is unlikely to find an adapter today that allows charging more than 1 computer due to limitations in power and heat management in a compact physical package.


Audio out and audio in

Anecdotally, I quite often witness people at restaurants playing games or watching videos with the sound blaring from their phone speakers compared to the mostly headphone wearing public transport users. Coupled with the frequent sighting of the police pulling drivers over for mobile phone usage, this suggests a significant number of people simply do not use headphones.

On the other end of this spectrum are the people who prefer better sounding headphones and/or the freedom that only wireless headphones can provide. Personally, I first joined the better sound group about 7 years ago, then took up membership in the wireless group as well about 4 years ago.


Environmentally sound

The environmental life cycle should always be viewed in totality. Apple should be commended for reducing packaging and transport, but I believe they can take it further. But why haven’t they? I hope this is simply part of change management from Apple. The willingness of the press and competing brands to condemn Apple’s decision validates a step-by-step process.

In my view, the sheer number of power and audio choices available today to fit the different needs of iPhone users is what tips the balance in favour of removing previously bundled accessories. It just happens to also be a good choice for the environment. Finally, if we are honest as consumers, we are at fault for demanding free items to sweeten the deal in our purchases. If you find yourself not using the free items or purchasing a different accessory due to a requirement, a preference, or an upgrade, then the free items have just been ticketed for the landfill.