For the past few years, a stubborn rumor has circulated ahead of the release of the newest iPhone: that this will be the one without a Lightning port. Exact details vary, sometimes there are whispers of a USB-C port, other times of a transition to no ports at all. So far, it's never come to pass. But now, the end is quite clearly in sight.
The European Union is locking in new legislation that will require all devices sold in Europe and which charge by cable to have the same charging port, USB-C, come autumn of 2024. That means that by the time we've reached the iPhone 16, the Lightning port will no longer be a default part of every Apple smartphone. To sell iPhones in Europe, Apple will need to produce a phone with a USB-C port or, more likely, no ports at all.
And while this is certainly a huge shift for the iPhone-making juggernaut, it's something that's been on the horizon. The Lightning port has been headed towards the chopping block for a long while, and its replacement has always been inevitable. Now it's just a question of whether it happens in 2024, or sooner.
Apple has been laying the groundwork to abandon Lightning for years...
If you're looking for hints that Apple has been preparing to abandon the Lightning port, you will find no shortage of them. They come in two flavors.
The first is the steady advance of the USB-C port. When the iPad Pro was first launched in 2015, it unsurprisingly launched with a Lightning port, just like its contemporaries the iPad Air (Gen 2) and iPad Mini 4. In 2018, however, the 3rd generation iPad Pro came with a snazzy USB-C port. In 2020, the iPad Air lost its Lightning for a USB-C port as well. And just a few months ago, the iPad Mini's Lightning port also disappeared in a redesign.
Apple's MacBooks, meanwhile, have never sported the port, sticking to a 3.5mm jack for audio transitioned its iPhone EarPods to Lightning for the iPhone. As a result of this slow push, the number of devices which sport a Lightning port is smaller than ever, essentially relegated to the iPhone, AirPod cases, and the AirPods Max.
The second indicator, is the growing support for wireless charging. In 2020, Apple announced its wireless MagSafe chargers for the iPhone (distinct from its old MagSafe chargers for the MacBook, and also its new MagSafe chargers for the MacBook). While official "MagSafe" certification confers some benefits, like a higher rate of charge for supported Apple devices, MagSafe chargers are built on the widespread "Qi" charging standard -- which is, essentially, the USB-C of wireless charging.
With these two trends taken together, you can start to see a revealing pattern: almost every Lightning Port device Apple has made since 2020 supports wireless charging as well. To be sure, there are some outliers: the oddball AirPods Max (which also don't support Apple Music's Lossless tier), the old-design budget-grade iPad, and some desktop accessories. But increasingly, the lion's share of Apple's products could charge just fine if Lightning were to magically disappear.
And it very well may.
And the European Union is forcing Apple's hand.
Whatever Apple's ideal timeframe to phase out the Lightning port may have been, the European Union has now given the tech giant a hard deadline. An amendment to the EU's "Radio Equipment Directive" will soon require all devices sold in Europe to include a USB-C charging port if they include a charging port at all. The move is partly a measure to curb the production of e-waste in the form of carious proprietary chargers and partly a consumer-friendly bid to enforce a universal charging port. And now it's finally happening.
The legislation has been worming its way through European parliament for the better part of a few years, but as of June 2022, it's in its last stages of finalization. The end result is that the requirement will be binding on devices up for sale in the European Union as of fall 2024. That is to say, the iPhone 16.
Mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, earbuds, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers that are rechargeable via a wired cable will have to be equipped with a USB Type-C port, regardless of their manufacturer. Laptops will also have to be adapted to the requirements by 40 months after the entry into force.
The charging speed is also harmonised for devices that support fast charging, allowing users to charge their devices at the same speed with any compatible charger.
This legislation leaves Apple with a few options of various palatability to Apple. One option would be to produce USB-C iPhone exclusively for sale in Europe. It would satisfy the provisions of the new legislation, and is definitely technically feasible. But it's also kind of embarrassing, and would create a whole host of new compatibility issues for the company that would suddenly have two lines of non-interoperable smartphones.
Worse yet, it would complicate production and sale of the iPhone, which benefits greatly from economies of scale. Apple makes and sells hundreds of billions of iPhones each year. Production is simpler (and more profitable) if it doesn't have to make an additional USB-C port flavor of every model.
Apple has been known to alter its standard practices to stay on the good side of local law. In France, the iPhone continued to come with pack-in headphones long after Apple stopped the practice elsewhere, because French law required it (but no longer does). But that's a far cry from making a whole new type of iPhone.
Apple could also just switch to USB-C wholesale to avoid complications in production and compatibility, as has been rumored it might in the past. After all, the Apple has been willing to switch to USB on its iPads.
Fortunately for Apple, its endeavors on the wireless charging front offer an even cleaner way out. The Commission notes that this legislation only applies to devices that have ports at all, and a Commission spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that a portless iPhone would be exempt from requirements for a USB-C port. Ditching the port altogether, then, would save Apple the indignity and the hassle of transitioning to the port it's pointedly avoided for so long.
Will the iPhone 14 have a charging port?
So what about the iPhone 14, the next Apple flagship due for release at the end of 2022? The veracity of leaks and predictions can be hard to gauge, but there are a few things we can surmise with pretty reasonable certainty.
If the iPhone 14 has a port, it will be Lightning. The odds that Apple would decide to swap out its Lighting port for USB whole hog are infinitesimally small, though rumors that suggest this change are persistent virtually every year. Yes, it would be possible to put a USB-C port on an iPhone -- it just has virtually no upside for Apple.
A portless iPhone is almost certainly coming, but probably not this year. While a port-free iPhone seems all but inevitable given the various factors at play, from Apple's previous gameness to drop physical ports in favor of wireless protocols, to everything the EU is up to. But for now, the bulk of iPhone 14 rumors point to a redesign that's focused on the screen. Leaks and predictions indicate the next iPhone will remove the "notch" in favor of a "hole punch" design, and could integrate under-the-screen Face ID, or perhaps even bring back Touch ID. Specifics about an imminent portless iPhone, however, have yet to turn up.
But now we know that by 2024 and the iPhone 16, the portless future of the iPhone will almost certainly arrive.