Apples, which allows you to , may be the new feature in the iPhone 12 family that gives you the most immediate impact. And it’s knowing that the company – and the wireless industry as a whole – has spent an enormous amount of time shining the spotlight on 5G.
It is almost a sacrilege for me to write this. After all, I’ve been covering the potentially revolutionary nature of 5G since 2015, when I first wrote about Verizon’s intention to field test lightning-fast cellular technology. But the truth is, initial deployments don’t represent huge speed gains, and your first experience with 5G may elicit a shrug.
MagSafe, on the other hand, offers tangible benefits no matter where you live or if you’re near the right cell phone tower. A MagSafe connection charges faster than previous iPhones, making it comparable to the fast charging that Android phones have long enjoyed. And, as silly as it sounds, there’s something cool about watching your phone snap into place, visual confirmation that you haven’t fumbled with your device’s placement.
“There is no longer any guessing where the sweet spot is,” said Ramon Llamas, analyst at IDC.
MagSafe has its own exciting long term potential. The magnetic pins on the back of the phone are reminiscent of other attempts to push an ecosystem of attachments, from Motorola Moto Mods to the Essential Phone PH-1’s modular camera. None of these companies moved enough phones – the Essential, in particular, was an outright failure – to really get many accessory makers to take chances on bold ideas. Most of the time we have extra batteries.
Apple’s scale changes everything.
Opening the way
Apple’s huge reach – Strategy Analytics estimates it will sell 180 million units next year – represents a potentially huge market for anyone looking to make MagSafe accessories. The opportunity is particularly rich for anyone looking for accessories beyond basic wireless charging support. Think game controllers, camera grips, selfie sticks, and yes, wireless charging batteries that could change the way we hold or interact with an iPhone.
“We look forward to seeing the innovative way others will use MagSafe, creating a robust and ever-expanding ecosystem,” said Deniz Teoman, vice president of hardware systems engineering at Apple on Tuesday.
This is not hyperbole. Apple has a way to popularize and legitimize tech trends, from mobile payments to wireless charging. Where Motorola and Essential failed, Apple could popularize the notion of magnetic attachments.
Apple itself has filed for a patent for a folio case with additional power and the ability to charge AirPods, according to Patently Apple. While these patents don’t always result in real-world products, they indicate where the business may go in the future.
Phone accessory maker Belkin, meanwhile, has already unveiled two MagSafe accessories, a charging stand that can handle a iPhone 12, Apple Watch and Apple Airpods, as well as a more conventional car holder. Steve Malony, senior vice president of Belkin, said the initial products were more “bread and butter” than future roadmap props.
“Some of the ideas we see on our desk are pretty wild,” he teased. “It’s going to be fun to take these ideas and put them into play.”
MagSafe feels like a spiritual successor to Google’s Project Ara, a modular phone that used magnets to attach smaller components to the handset, allowing you to build it as if you’re assembling something from Legos.
Modular was touted as a potential breakthrough innovation in smartphones. LG gave it a try with its G5 phone, which allowed you to replace the bottom of the device with various accessories such as handles and hi-fi speakers. The trend dissipated as quickly as it increased, with Google putting the project on hold and then quietly removing it. The G5 was such a flop that LG followed up with a much more conventional phone the following year.
“The biggest problem is that fully modular designs are more appealing to engineers than consumers,” said Avi Greengart, analyst at Techsponential. “Smartphones are very advanced products, and people are buying the best phone they can afford and that meets their needs now, not a platform to tinker with later.
Moto Mods represented a simplified version of the modular concept, offering a complete phone with different backs that you can swap. This concept made Motorola’s Moto Z3 the first 5G phone on Verizon’s network, thanks to a 5G Mod that slammed on the back of the device. But even then, a phone without a Mod looked like half a device, and the gadget was at the heart of the phone.
Apple has refined it further, offering a full handset in the iPhone 12, but with the ability to magnetically attach accessories.
“MagSafe is brilliant in its simplicity,” Greengart said.
Malony called the advent of MagSafe a “transformative time” for the aftermarket, and he expects a wave of different accessories to come from within the industry.
“Things like that are game-changing,” he said.