Forget 5G: MagSafe could be the biggest reason to buy an iPhone 12

By now, you’ve probably read my colleague Nick Statt’s piece about how the iPhone 12’s MagSafe magnetically-attached wireless charging cable opens up a future where iPhones won’t need ports at all.

That sounds futuristic! Now, let’s talk about something a little more practical… something legions of people already do with their phones.

We stick them in cases — thousands upon thousands of different cases every year — to protect them from damage, attach them to car docks, add fancy lenses and, most of all, reflect our personality and mood. We glue on flashy finger ring holders and PopSockets, slap on stickers, anything to make them look and feel different from the same damn iPhone our friends, family, neighbors and strangers are toting around.

The most personal computer

Recently, Apple let iPhone owners reimagine their entire iOS 14 homescreen with custom widgets and app icons, and teens have been going to extreme lengths to re-skin their entire phone with Animal Crossing, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, Twilight and other themes. Despite the rise of apps like Widgetsmith, there’s a lot of friction keeping most of us from doing the same.

But with MagSafe, Apple is literally taking the friction out of accessorizing your iPhone. Magnets make it a snap.

Apple’s MagSafe cases and accessories snap right into place with magnets. Image: Apple

Immediately, you can see how much easier it’d be to swap cases each morning, or perhaps before you go out for the evening (once society starts doing that kind of thing again). Today’s cases effectively have claws that grasp the edges of your phone — but with magnets, there’d be less need to painstakingly pry those away from your phone’s corners, or press down hard on your pricey camera module just to get enough leverage to pop it off.

Just as importantly, these MagSafe cases are stackable with a MagSafe charger and other compatible accessories. You can attach more than one at a time.

Your credit cards are shielded from the magnets, according to Apple. Image: Apple

Ever had to remove or return a case because your wireless charger couldn’t reliably beam its power through? Ever had to stick a steel plate into or onto your case to get it to magnetically attach to your car dock? Ever owned a special case you had to pop on every time you wanted to add an additional lens, or a kickstand, or carry credit cards, or secure your phone to your bike, or one thin enough to slot into the controller for your drone?

Were those special cases disgustingly ugly and devoid of personality? I bet some of them were.

Theoretically, MagSafe means your phone’s case, charging capabilities and attachment points no longer need to be a package deal. Every case can be designed to transmit wireless power, and you can easily pop off any accessories (like your credit card wallet or lens mount) that might get in the way. Want to swap out your PopSocket or phone ring? No need to wear out the adhesive; magnets could let you swap them out multiple times a day.

Heck, tomorrow’s magnetic car docks might not need you to purchase a case at all — they could magnetically grab onto the back of your phone. Add-on steel plates might go away. And instead of buying a big, beefy phone-grabbing wireless charging dock like the one I use today, you could imagine a simple holster for Apple’s existing MagSafe cable.

The DJI Osmo Mobile 4 and a Moment case and lens. Image: DJI

And why limit our imagination to the kinds of accessories that already attach to a case? Take DJI’s Osmo Mobile 4 motorized smartphone stabilizer, which features detachable magnetic mounts so you can quickly pop off your phone in a pinch. But you’ve still got to attach the Osmo’s claw mount to your phone to begin with, and remove it when you’re done. What if it directly magnetically attached to your new iPhone itself?

Today’s drone controllers similarly use clamping frames to keep your phone securely attached. What if they had a flip-out MagSafe attachment plate instead?

The return of modular accessories?

And what if instead of buying an extended battery case for your iPhone, you could quickly attach a magnetic battery back? Lenovo and Motorola failed to make modular phones stick, but their Moto Mods modular component ideas were always pretty neat — I stuck with a Moto Z2 Play for quite a bit. You lose some efficiency with wireless charging compared to direct copper contacts, but perhaps some accessory manufacturer will try again.

Of course, a lot of these ideas depend on the strength of Apple’s magnets. PopSockets and ring holders won’t work particularly well if it’s too easy to pop them off the phone, and if a magnetic car mount can’t hold an iPhone 12 while driving down a bumpy road, the claws will still win out.

Otterbox tried building swappable PopSockets into a case — a halfway step. Image: Otterbox

It also may depend on whether Apple will be a benevolent overlord or rule the MagSafe ecosystem with an iron fist, and we don’t know the answer to that yet. Magnets themselves aren’t proprietary, so theoretically case and mount makers could easily take advantage, and the Qi wireless charging standard also isn’t under Apple’s control.

Still, Apple’s marketing videos have already shown us that the iPhone can detect and react to “official” accessories as well — and, in the case of MagSafe, only offer full charging speed with certified charging pads. After years of making money off its MFi (Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad) licensing and certification program, it’s hard to imagine Apple giving up that revenue so easily.

Either way, this could be a lucrative new reboot for Apple’s accessories ecosystem, as there will be less friction to accessorize than ever before. Combined with the ease of charging your iPhone at bedtime — where sleepy hands might misalign the coils and today’s pads don’t work well in bed — and I feel like MagSafe could be the single best new reason to buy an iPhone this year.

Cameras keep getting better, processors keep getting faster, and 5G will inevitably make its way to every phone, whether Android or Apple. But no Android manufacturer has an accessory system like the iPhone 12 just teased.

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