The iPhone 12 MagSafe: Foreshadowing a Connector-less Smartphone World?

Roger Isaac,
CTO, Keyssa

Whatever you think about Apple products (I happen to use Android), you have to give them credit for taking major steps that fundamentally change the way people use smartphones. I guess that should not be surprising. After all, Apple invented the category. Although Apple iPhones may not have all the bells and whistles of some of the other phones on the market, there are times when their newly announced phones foreshadow a trend that everyone in the industry acknowledges, but no one else dare take that step in the own products.

Such is the case with the iPhone 12 and its MagSafe wireless charger.

Similar to the way Apple weaned its users (and the industry along with them) off the headphone jack in the iPhone 7, so too we are witnessing the gradual, step-by-step removal of the power and data connector from the smartphone. In both cases, the move from wired to wireless comes with a hybrid step that includes both types of connections, but the end game is clear: completely wireless. Make no mistake about it, Apple is telegraphing a major shift in smartphone design: the connector-less phone. With the MagSafe charger, Apple is moving us towards a world of portable wireless chargers.

This comes as no surprise. In December of 2019, the eerily accurate analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted that Apple will launch an iPhone without the Lightning connector in 2021.

“Among new 2H21 iPhone models, we expect that the highest-end model
would cancel the [Lightning] port and provide the completely wireless experience.”

 

Why Ditch Mechanical Connectors?

There have been many reasons given to explain Apple’s elimination of the audio jack: better consumer experiences, thinner smartphones, more footprint for battery, bezel-to-bezel screens, more effective waterproofing. But all these reasons fall under one compelling rationale. The mechanical connector, with its requisite hole in the side of a product, and its required internal footprint, is an inhibitor to many advancements in product design. Eliminating mechanical connectors frees companies to offer new and compelling features. It’s that simple.

 

Will the Market Accept a Connector-less Smartphone? And What about Data?

Smartphone connectors have two essential functions: power and data. The new MagSafe connector now makes charging cables as portable as traditional Lightning cables. One might argue that using the Lightning connector for data has already been replaced by wireless, but that would be ignoring the large number of markets that do not have fast networks, or the data-intensive 4K video and slo-mo capabilities of today’s camera modules, creating files that may require more than you are willing to tolerate over even the fastest Wi-Fi or 5G connection. And let’s not forget that there are parts of the world where relying on wireless networks to transfer personal files may not be something users will accept. And then there’s CarPlay, which still requires a direct data connection between phone and car. So, what about the data portion of the Lightning connector? Can the market accept losing a data connector?

I would argue that the impact of completely removing the Lightning connector (or the equivalent Type-C on Android phones) will have a much greater negative impact on the transfer of data than on the transfer of power, albeit not for every user. And it seems that Apple knows this as well. One clue to Apple’s plans seems to be in their attach mechanism, which is keyed. In other words, the connector can only attach in one specific way.

Wireless power doesn’t require such keying. 60GHz wireless data transfer, which can transfer data at the speed of wires, does require keying. The MagSafe is a wireless power connector designed to add wireless data transfer capabilities in order to maintain the same level of functionality as its mechanical predecessor.

 

Connector-less is a Misnomer

Ming-Chi Kuo understands the nuances of the connector. He never predicted that Apple would launch a connector-less phone. He only said that Apple would launch a phone without the Lightning connector enabling a “completely wireless experience.” And there is a reason that Apple has resurrected the MagSafe brand as part of the wireless adapter. The new MagSafe, IS a connector – just not a mechanical connector.

 

The MagSafe does Not Foreshadow a Connector-less Phone. Instead, it Foreshadows the Advent of the Wireless Connector

Power and data – the two fundamental features of the Lightning (and Type-C) mechanical connectors. With the launch of this new MagSafe connector for the iPhone 12, the wireless power connector will soon become a mainstay for smartphones. And for those users who still need the security and/or speed of a mechanical connector to transfer data, rest assured that the wireless data connector will be there to complement the wireless power connector.

It will be interesting to see how Apple deals with this “mechanical connector-less phone” that is rumored to launch in 2021. It is my hunch that we will see the first product that will migrate from a mechanical power and data connector, to a wireless power and data connector. Not connector-less – all devices need to connect. But mechanically connector-less.

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