Apple’s been playing it too MagSafe

It’s been almost a year since Apple first debuted the iPhone 12 lineup, and introduced its MagSafe accessory system. So where are all the MagSafe chargers? Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of accessory developers making cases, wallets, car mounts, desk stands, and even magnetic Qi chargers and battery […]

It’s been almost a year since Apple first debuted the iPhone 12 lineup, and introduced its MagSafe accessory system. So where are all the MagSafe chargers?

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of accessory developers making cases, wallets, car mounts, desk stands, and even magnetic Qi chargers and battery packs that work with MagSafe — but almost no actual MagSafe accessories.

And that’s a big difference because of how Apple has designed the MagSafe standard. Anyone can wirelessly charge an iPhone 12 device using a Qi charger at Apple’s standard rate of 7.5W. Magnets, being a physical phenomenon, are even more universal, meaning that device manufacturers can easily stick an iPhone 12 and a Qi charger together. (Many already have.)

Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

But those two things alone don’t make a wireless charger a MagSafe charger; actual, Apple-approved MagSafe chargers offer a charging speed that’s twice as fast, up to 15W. And that’s only available on a paltry handful of accessories: Apple’s official charging cable, Apple’s MagSafe Duo charger, Apple’s official MagSafe battery pack (even then, only when it’s plugged in), and a pair of pricey Belkin stands.

Theoretically, there’s no reason that Apple has to restrict 15W charging to official MagSafe chargers. Any number of Qi chargers are available that offer 15W charging speeds and work with a plethora of devices. Some of them are even made by Apple’s MagSafe-approved partners, leading to awkward product lineups where some MagSafe-capable 15W chargers sit side by side on a website with identical-looking 7.5W, MagSafe-compatible wireless chargers that won’t charge your phone as fast.

This Belkin charger has MagSafe, costs $99, and charges an iPhone 12 at 15W.
Image: Belkin

This Belkin charger has magnets, costs $35, and charges an iPhone 12 at 7.5W.
Image: Belkin

The reason appears to be simple: Apple hasn’t actually let anyone else make MagSafe chargers yet. According to ChargerLab — a wireless-charging-focused site that’s obtained details and a unit for Apple’s MagSafe modules — Apple is only allowing MagSafe chargers to be built using an MFi-approved module.

Much like the Apple Watch charger (and to some extent, Lighting cables), Apple works with factories to provide the basic parts here, which developers can then integrate into a charging station or mount. Technically, there’s not a huge difference between offering a slot for a MagSafe cable versus the integrated module; the advantage is largely in size and cost, allowing for accessories that are smaller, cheaper, and nicer to use than the awkward, kludged-together options we have today.

An image of Apple’s MagSafe module for device makers.
Image: ChargerLab

But crucially, the company only announced that it would be offering the modules on June 22nd, almost nine months after the iPhone 12 launched. Hardware developers were only then able to apply to get their hands on samples and apply to get true MagSafe products approved (which will presumably take even more time), followed by actually manufacturing and shipping those accessories, which could take months by itself.

It’s a similar timetable that we’ve seen with other proprietary Apple chargers. Apple didn’t offer developers the option to build their own integrated Apple Watch products until July 2015, four months after the Watch hit the market, and it took almost a year after that until the first third-party products arrived with the proprietary charger built in. Those products have proven to be excellent options for consumers, offering functionality that Apple didn’t, like integration with other wireless charging pads, removable cables, or a built-in power bank. But because of how Apple’s system works, it took months for them to arrive.

Or take USB-C to Lightning cables, where Apple first started selling its own models in fall of 2016 — but only opened the gates to developers in December 2018, with the first cables showing up a few months later in early 2019.

Each time, that slow start has had direct consequences: a lack of diversity and competition in the products you can buy. Apple’s virtual monopoly on accessories in the first months or years means customers have fewer — and worse — options for their brand-new iPhones.

There’s still no MagSafe car mounts that will charge your iPhone 12 at full speed, even a year after launch — perhaps the most blindingly obvious use of MagSafe. The closest Apple-sanctioned accessory is a magnetic car mount that just holds up (but doesn’t charge) your phone. And if you want a MagSafe charger for your desk or nightstand that can prop your iPhone up, you’re limited to bulkier workarounds that require threading through an existing Apple-bought cable (or Belkin’s two options, which are usually even pricier). Apple spent the better part of the year without giving access to developers to build their own products, while also not working to build anything on its own to fill those niches, either.

And while developers can try to keep up with Apple, like Anker’s MagSafe-compatible battery pack, they’re not playing on a level field without access to the MagSafe modules that Apple is rationing out. Forget Apple’s software additions that make its MagSafe battery pack more useful than a third-party option: right now, Apple’s pack is the only one that can even charge an iPhone at full speed, and even then, only while it’s plugged in with specific adapters and capable cords. It’s the sort of area where competition could lead to better products.

Maybe a third-party can figure out a way to provide full-speed charging from a battery pack that Apple didn’t, or simply offer things at a lower price point or with a larger battery than Apple’s pack offers.

That, of course, assumes that Apple even lets competitors make officially approved MagSafe battery packs. The company’s MFi program means that developers have to get their hardware approved by Apple and be built using Apple-approved parts from Apple-approved factories. (Apple also gets a fee from each product, of course.) And if the company doesn’t like a design, it can simply withhold its seal of approval and the necessary parts.

Of course, proprietary Apple chargers are nothing new, and while today’s MagSafe licensing feels slow, it’s better than things used to be. The original iteration of MagSafe on laptops wasn’t licensed out to third party companies at all: if you wanted a spare charger or to charge your Mac from an external battery pack, you were pretty much out of luck.

The most famous example of this is accessory maker Sanho, which famously bought $79 MagSafe chargers, disassembled them, and used the original cable to allow Mac owners to charge their computers with its HyperMac batteries. Apple then sued Sanho, which was forced to come up with a workaround that instructed customers to buy their own chargers and modify the cables themselves.

But a year out, it’s hard to feel like MagSafe isn’t a missed opportunity for Apple. When the iPhone 12 first came out, MagSafe looked like a way for the company to build an ecosystem of snap-on modular accessories, the sort of thing that Motorola had tried and failed to accomplish with its Moto Mods system. There were visions of port-less iPhones that could rely on MagSafe exclusively for charging and connecting to external devices.

But instead of that thriving new accessory ecosystem, Apple has effectively left us with a handful of Apple-designed cables. It makes Apple’s magnetic standard look less like a stepping stone to the portless future, and more like another brick in Apple’s walled garden.

Jacquelin Burkhammer

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