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 superfast cellular technology. But the truth is, initial deployments don’t represent huge speed boosts, and your first experience with 5G might spark a shrug.
MagSafe, on the other hand, offers some tangible benefits no matter where you live or if you’re close to the right cell tower. A MagSafe connection charges faster than previous iPhones, bringing it on par with the fast charging Android phones have long enjoyed. And, silly as it sounds, there’s something interesting about watching your phone snap into place – a visual confirmation that you haven’t tinkered with the placement of your device.
“There is no longer a need to guess where the sweet spot is,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.
MagSafe has its long term potential which is exciting. The magnetic pins on the back of the phone point to other attempts to push an ecosystem of attachments, from Motorola’s Moto Mods to the Essential Phone PH-1’s modular camera. None of these companies have moved enough phones – the essential, in particular, was a real flop – to really interest 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 – means a potentially huge market for anyone looking to build MagSafe accessories. The opportunity is particularly rich for those looking at attachments beyond the basic wireless charging stand. 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,” Deniz Teoman, Apple’s vice president of hardware systems engineering said Tuesday in an Apple presentation.
It is not hyperbole. Apple has a way to popularize and legitimize tech trends, from mobile payments to wireless charging. Where Motorola and Essential weren’t up to par, Apple could popularize the notion of magnetic attachments.
Apple itself has filed a patent for a folio case with an additional power supply and the ability to charge AirPods, according to Patently Apple. While these patents don’t always produce products in the real world, they are an indication of where the company could 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, along with a more conventional car mount. Steve Malony, Belkin’s senior vice president, said the initial products were more “bread and butter” than future accessories on the roadmap.
“Some of the ideas we see coming to our desk are pretty crazy,” he joked. “It will be fun to take those 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 phone, allowing you to build it as if you were assembling something from Lego.
Modular was touted as a potential breakthrough innovation in smartphones. LG tried its hand with its G5 phone, which allowed you to replace the bottom of the device with different accessories like grips and hi-fi speakers. The trend died out as quickly as it grew, with Google suspending the project, then quietly scrapping it. The G5 was such a flop that LG continued with a much more conventional phone the following year.
“The biggest problem is that fully modular designs are more attractive to engineers than consumers,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential. “Smartphones are highly evolved products and people are buying the best phone they can afford 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 in and out. This concept allowed Motorola’s Moto Z3 to be the first 5G phone on Verizon’s network, thanks to a 5G Mod that was slapped on the back of the device. But even then, a phone without a Mod felt like half a device and the trick was the focus of the phone.
Apple has further perfected it, offering a complete phone in the iPhone 12, but with the ability to magnetically attach accessories.
“MagSafe is brilliant in its simplicity,” said Greengart.
Malony has called the advent of MagSafe a “transformation period” for the accessories market and expects a wave of different accessories to come from the industry.
“Things like this change the game,” he said.