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Made For iPhone manufacturers may have to comply with Apple's supplier responsibility code

There's no gaggle of satellite trucks or eager liveblogs documenting every moment, but one of the most important Apple-related events is going on right now in Shenzhen, China: the annual MFi (Made For iPhone/iPad/iPod) manufacturers' conference. This multi-day meeting is the interface, so to speak, between Apple's mobile products and the vast ecosystem of accessories, gadgets and peripherals that swarms around them.

Only MFi-licensed vendors can use the "Made for iPhone" logo on their packaging, and they are the only ones who get access to Apple's internal documentation for interfaces and connectivity. With the advent of the Lightning connector across the iOS product line, this year's conference is a key opportunity for vendors to get the intelligence they need for 2013 and beyond. In fact, reports last month revealed that Apple intends to control the supply of Lightning connector pins directly, rather than allowing third parties to make the parts themselves.

The cone of silence surrounding the MFi meeting is intense, unlike the rather leaky WWDC experience. That's understandable: there's way fewer MFi companies than iOS/OS X developers, and the technical information under discussion at the MFi conference could provide Apple competitors with valuable intel.

Nevertheless, during the meeting this week a few interesting tidbits have made their way to us through the Great Firewall. Most are trivial (did not know: the Lightning connector is waterproof!) but one big one is not. According to our source at the event, Apple intends to make compliance with its supplier code of conduct a condition of MFi licensing.

The supplier code, which has been implemented and expanded over the past few years as Apple and manufacturing partner Foxconn have come under increasing scrutiny for working conditions, currently applies only to Apple's manufacturing supply chain partners and component vendors. Pushing it out to the larger accessory ecosystem would be a concrete example of Apple using its 800-pound-gorilla status in the consumer electronics space to influence more companies to behave ethically on worker rights, environmental issues and more.

Of course, there may well be MFi participants who see this move as heavy-handed and unnecessary. It's not yet clear what the schedule, audit requirements or penalties for non-compliance might be -- but there may be some vendors at the margins who feel that the additional effort and expense to comply decreases the overall value of participating in the iOS accessory market.

Even if you don't believe the DigiTimes rumor that Foxconn is considering building out LCD TV manufacturing plants in the US (and we don't), accessory makers which have US-based operations may have a leg up on compliance over those in China and elsewhere. We'll keep an eye out for official word of these policy changes in MFi over the next few weeks.