A look at the future of Apple’s Smart Connector tech

Rumor claims Apple wants to build an ecosystem of devices around its currently iPad-only Smart Connector tech. What is Smart Connector, what can it do, and what’s next for the tech?

Apple, iPad, iPad Pro, Logitech, iOS, Smart Connector, Keyboard, iPhone, wireless power

Rumor claims Apple wants to build an ecosystem of devices around its currently iPad-only Smart Connector tech. What is Smart Connector, what can it do, and what’s next for the tech?

Joining the dots

Apple introduced its Smart Connector interface when it launched its iPad Pro range in September 2015.

It’s a magnetic connection that provides data transfer and bi-directional power to a third-party accessory. What’s nice about the interconnect is that it recognizes and provides for an accessory almost instantly once the device and peripheral are magnetically docked.

Glancing through a wedge of U.S. Patent Office filings, we learn that the first related patents for the Apple technology were around 2015. It seems probable Apple truly began working on the connection before then, perhaps bringing some ideas from the popular MagSafe power interface previously used in some Macs.

Smart Connector is used with the Apple Smart Keyboard. There are two non-Apple accessories, both available from Logitech, the CREATE Keyboard and LOGI Base charging dock. That’s a situation Apple apparently wants to change.

The Logitech connection

Logitech and Apple worked together to bring the Create and Base products to market, but it appears the partnership failed to ignite other third-party manufacturers to get involved in the task.

I’m speculating, but I think this likely reflects the limited palette of peripherals you actually need with an iPad — when Apple and Logitech both make useful keyboards, the market for third parties is made considerably smaller.

While it makes sense to imagine a MIDI keyboard for musical projects and forms of external memory device, the size of the iPad Pro market is relatively small, which maximizes potential risk. Apple hasn’t told us how many iPad Pros it has sold, but it had shifted an estimated 360 million iPads as of Q2 2017. It sold c.11.4 million units of all its iPad products in Q3 2017. 

“With an iPad Pro keyboard on the market already, we are evaluating the market’s appetite for another iPad Pro keyboard and identifying if there are any gaps that we can fill,” Incipio spokesperson Kelly McElroy told Fast Company.

Apple apparently says “multiple companies” are developing these accessories at this time.

Why so few Smart Connector accessories?

Manufacturers wishing to use the Smart Connector in their accessories must join Apple’s Made for iPad scheme to access the hardware and engineering information they need.

The scheme provides testing tools, product certification, proprietary hardware, technical information and support. To participate in the scheme, manufacturers must pay a royalty rate (which Apple has not disclosed). Royalty fees and the relatively small installed base of iPad Pro users mean the market just isn't that attractive to hardware makers, particularly at this period of relative economic and social instability.

There is another limitation: the proprietary hardware.

To manufacture devices with the technology, it is necessary to purchase certain components from Apple or a named partner firm.

Fast Company says production of these parts is slow, citing one maker who claimed a six-month wait for parts, which impacts device development schedules.

What's next for Smart Connector tech?

Apple has put cool I/O technologies inside its products before. Its history is scattered with interconnect technologies it has championed, including lamented MagSafe and award-winning FireWire.

Given the risks and cost of MFI, many manufacturers prefer to provide Bluetooth  or Wi-Fi-based solutions. Not only are such accessories intrinsically compatible with any Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-enabled system, but they also get to avoid paying Apple a royalty or purchasing expensive components.

To convince manufacturers that there is a good business case in the provision of Smart Connector accessories, Apple will have to incentivize them. How can it do this?

  • Widen the market: There are conflicting rumors that Apple plans to introduce Smart Connector in future iPhones.
  • Create uniqueness: Wireless power, additional features and unique technology propositions may become key to success with the tech. Would HomeKit integration via Smart Connector to an iOS device enable enough security for next-generation smart alarm systems? Does Apple intend to make the connection an integral part of its future wireless charging technologies?
  • Beyond consumer markets: Apple may also be able to expand the reach of Smart Connector tech by putting a little focus into how it may be used to support smart enterprise deployments, such as connected industrial or logistics systems.
  • Make it a standard: There is one last possibility: Figuring out how to make Smart Connector an open standard — how popular would this become? The market would decide.

Can Apple achieve this?

That's hard to say, but it seems pretty clear that part of any effort to nurture more use of the tech by third-party makers involves a need to widen the addressable market. 

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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