Process of Elimination

Thoughts on Apple’s first-remover advantage

Is Apple about to start a trend of eliminating the in-box charger and headphones that have been established as part of the standard new-phone kit? It feels like this might be inevitable, and if it doesn’t happen this time, it’ll be next time. Rudimentary smartphone accessories are about to become optional, and as is often the case, Apple is likely to lead with its process of elimination. The world will moan, then follow.

Apple has a long history of elimination. Over the past few decades, it removed the floppy drive, the CD reader, the SCSI port and the headphone jack, showing industry leadership and even courage in each of these product developments. During every one of these moves, dedicated Apple fans expressed an array of emotions. Many became bewildered, appalled, disillusioned and some even horrified. In most cases, Apple offered optional and high-margin accessories for those who thought they still needed what the company determined to be legacy technologies.

If Apple isn’t always the first phone-maker to adopt a new technology — we can point to the recent example of adding wireless charging to its iPhones — the California-based company is usually the first to chop a technology. It’s a sort of first-remover advantage that it has established as part of its strategy. In most cases, rivals monitored crowd reactions and ultimately ended up following Apple down the path of elimination.

This tough-love approach from Apple has a solid track record. There’s a consistent pattern: as rumours start that Apple is planning to discard one thing or another from an upcoming product, Apple enthusiasts around the globe fly through the five stages of grief — from denial to acceptance, everybody gets on with their lives.

The rumour that Apple will no longer include the power supply or headphones in its upcoming iteration of iPhones started with respected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. And it all makes sense as governments have been looking to cut e-waste and, in particular, have been developing strategies for phone chargers, pushing standards that would enable and encourage reuse of existing chargers.

The numbers are massive. Each year, more than a billion handsets are sold worldwide. Most people in the world are already mobile users and in developed markets, most have gone through several late-model smartphones during the past decade. This means that households have several charging bricks of some voltage, with many sitting idle in drawers and junk boxes. The fleet of chargers out in the world is colossal.

We understand that there’s a profit motive here as well as a green one. It might even be a further tentative step toward a “no port” iPhone. Apple has learned and also taught the mobile industry that device prices have a ceiling, and the concept of price elasticity of demand is still valid in the world of smartphones. When Apple cut prices on the iPhone 11, demand shot up, catching rivals unawares. As it prepares to release 5G-capable smartphones, Apple may have decided it can’t pass on entire incremental costs to consumers and maintain its margins. This is particularly true for millimetre-wave devices, which require complex antenna architectures and additional components.

When Apple executives get up on stage at the launch event in September, they will probably and rightly highlight statistics that many future iPhone buyers are upgrading from earlier models, so they already have a basic charging solution for the phone. And for customers who may be planning to sell their phone with charger in the second-hand market, Apple will prepare for a bump in accessory volumes, selling additional charging solutions including wireless ones. Retailers and operators would welcome this.

Furthermore, I expect that Apple will correctly point out that the elimination of the in-box charger will allow for leaner iPhone boxes, which will mean less packaging material and more-efficient product deliveries. Brick by charging brick, Apple won’t just help stem the mountains of e-waste, but start a positive environmental domino effect.

This approach comes with a sting in the tail, though. We’re seeing a wave of new charging technologies that allow for rapid charging at higher wattage, and these advances usually require a new charger. Admittedly, Apple has a poor track record when it comes to upgrading its chargers. Although the iPhone 8 and newer devices support fast charging, only the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max models come with a 18W fast charger in the box, rather than the standard 5W variant.

Personally, I think it’s a shame that Apple never made a wholesale switch to a USB-C port on its devices. But that ship has sailed and there’s no point going over old ground. Besides, the number of Lightning charging cables in use is a good reason not to change, as the company is poised to stop including a charger in the box.

There will be a new elimination match starting soon and Apple’s rivals must determine what’s best for their product strategy, for their customers, their goodwill and the environment.