Taking charge

A feud over standardising smartphone chargers

Ding Lei, founder and CEO of NetEase, attends a session of the second annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town

Ding Lei: founder of NetEase

China produces some 25,000 tonnes of electronic waste from disused phone chargers every year.

So it’s not surprising that it might seek to reduce this source of pollution. The question is how.

One solution recently put forward by Ding Lei, founder of internet firm NetEase, was to standardise the connectors on chargers so people can use their old cables with new phones.

This is not a new idea. In September last year the European Commission proposed legislation that would make USB-C the standard charging port for all mobile phones, tablets, earphones and cameras across the European Union.

But not everyone in Chinese tech circles agrees that a forced transition is the way to go.

One critic is the WeChat journalist Yu Ping who runs a much followed account called Fish Eye Observation. In a recent article titled “Ding Lei is wrong”, he argued that it should be the market not the government that settles on the best standards.

Currently there are three main types of charging connectors: the micro-USB, USB-C (the format favoured by the European Commission), and Apple’s lightning portal. Picking one as the universal standard would stifle further innovation in a rapidly evolving industry, Yu argued.

After posting the article, Yu came under legal pressure from NetEase to delete it. No reason was given, but maybe the denunciation of Ding Lei as “wrong” made NetEase’s PR department uncomfortable.

Ding appears to have thought better of the heavy-handed tactics and later wrote Yu a friendly public letter addressing the point the journalist had raised. “Formulating norms will not tie the hands of innovation, but lead the industry to develop in a healthier and orderly direction… real innovation is unstoppable,” the tycoon claimed.

Over the years the industry has coalesced around different mobile charging standards and whittled down from more than 30 charger types a decade ago (many of us will recall using those old Nokia phone chargers from the 1990s with the circular connector).

Yet further streamlining appears to have stalled, leading the EU and now some in China to propose legislation

“We gave the industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions, now time is ripe for legislative action for a common charger,” the European Commission said in a statement last September. It also estimated that the EU generates about 11,000 tonnes in charger e-waste every year.

As well as founding NetEase, Ding is also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. As such his suggestion that charger connectors be standardised generated a response from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

“Vigorously promoting the integration of charging interfaces and technologies will help reduce electronic waste and improve the efficiency of resource utilisation… we will continue to promote the formulation of relevant national standards and the unification of charging interfaces,” it said.

Neither Ding nor the MIIT have indicated which standard they consider best – though a wholesale shift to the USB-C connector in Europe could well set the norm further afield.

The USB-C is also the port favoured by China’s biggest domestic phone brands: Huawei, Xiaomi and OPPO. Samsung – which as we reported in last week’s issue is making a push to regain share in China’s smartphone market – also uses USB-C for its latest generation of foldable handsets.

But with Apple’s iPhone currently enjoying the top spot in China (see WiC569), it will take some serious regulatory heft to persuade the Cupertino tech giant to switch its devices to USB-C from its own beloved standard – particularly if the change is engineered only for the Chinese market.

It could well also set a regulatory precedent for an even bigger market that Apple may soon enter: electric vehicles (and how should they be recharged).

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