It is almost sacrilege for me to write this. After all, I’ve been covering the potentially game-changing nature of 5G since 2015, when I first wrote about Verizon’s intent to test the super-fast cellular technology. But the truth is that initial implementations do not represent huge speed increases, and your first experience with 5G can provoke a shrug.
MagSafe, on the other hand, offers some concrete benefits, no matter where you live or whether you are near the right cell tower. A MagSafe connection charges faster than previous iPhones, bringing it on par with the fast charging that Android phones have long had. And, as silly as this sounds, there’s something cool about watching your phone slam into place, visual confirmation that you did not fumble the location of your device.
“There’s no more guessing where the sweet spot is,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.
MagSafe has its own long-term potential that is exciting. The magnetic pins on the back of the phone rake back 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 moved enough phones – especially Essential was a direct flop – to really interest many accessory manufacturers to take risks on bold ideas. Most of the time we got extra battery packs.
Apple’s scale changes everything.
Clear 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 option is especially rich for anyone looking at attachments in addition to the basic wireless charging stand. Think game controllers, camera grips, selfie sticks, and yes, wireless battery packs that can change the way we hold or interact with an iPhone.
“We can’t wait to see the innovative way that others use MagSafe, creating a robust and ever-growing ecosystem,” said Deniz Teoman, vice president of hardware systems engineering at Apple, in the Apple presentation Tuesday.
It is not hyperbole. Apple has a way of popularizing and legitimizing technological trends from mobile payments to wireless charging. Where Motorola and Essential fell short, Apple was able to popularize the concept of magnetic attachments.
Apple itself filed a patent on a folio case with extra power supply and the ability to charge AirPods, according to Patently Apple. While these patents do not always provide products in the real world, they are an indication of where the company may go in the future.
Phone accessory manufacturer Belkin has meanwhile 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 kit. Steve Malony, senior vice president of Belkin, said the original products were more “bread and butter” compared to future accessories on the roadmap.
“Some of the ideas that we see coming across 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 so you could build it up as if you were collecting something from Legos.
Modular was hyped as a potential groundbreaking innovation in smartphones. LG tried its hand with its G5 phone, which allowed you to swap the bottom of the device for various attachments like grips and hi-fi speakers. The trend died just as fast as it rose, with Google putting the project on hold and then scrapping it quietly. The G5 was such a flop that LG followed up with a far more conventional phone next year.
“The bigger problem is that fully modular designs are more appealing to engineers than to consumers,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential. “Smartphones are products that are highly developed, and people buy the best phone they can afford that meets their needs now, not a platform to tinker with later.”
Moto Mods represented a streamlined version of the modular concept that offers a full phone with different backs that you can swap in and out. This concept made it possible for Motorola’s Moto Z3 to be the first 5G phone on Verizon’s network thanks to a 5G Mod that slammed into the back of the device. But even then, a Mod-smaller phone felt like half of a device, and the gimmick was the core of the phone.
Apple has improved it further and offers a complete handset in the iPhone 12, but with the option of magnetically connecting accessories.
“MagSafe is brilliant in its simplicity,” Greengart said.
Malony called the emergence of MagSafe a “transformation time” for the accessories market, and he expects a wave of different attachments to come from the industry.
“Things like this change the game,” he said.