“I would never want to be in the iPhone case business,” a friend of mine said the other day, and I couldn’t help but agree. Designing accessories for Apple products means you’re in fierce competition for largely low margins, you have to gamble on early design leaks to get started with your own creations, and you are utterly at the whim of Apple’s own design decisions.
There’s one seller of Apple accessories who doesn’t have to worry so much, though: Apple itself. Apple has the home-field advantage of knowing all the details of its forthcoming products. It’s got convenient upsell capabilities in Apple Stores and the ability to sell Apple-branded products at much larger profit margins. But then there’s perhaps the biggest advantage of all: Apple can control the very product design itself as a way to enable the accessories it wants to build.
No product embodies Apple’s own synergy between hardware and accessories like the iPad. Stripped down to its basics, it’s just a tablet. But it can be outfitted with Smart Folios, Magic Keyboards, and Apple Pencils, often with connectivity provided by ports never seen on any other Apple product. And it looks like we’re about to see another round of iPad accessory innovation.
This week, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported that a new iPad Pro is due next year. And, he says, it’ll come with a “revamped” Magic Keyboard that “makes the iPad Pro look even more like a laptop than the current setup and adds a larger trackpad.”
Today’s iPad Pro uses a design specifically built to enable interesting accessories: a strong array of magnets and a Smart Connector (three metal dots that transfer power and data), all on the back of the device. The Smart Connector was previously on the side, but clearly, Apple decided that placement along the back would be a better fit with the future accessories it had in mind.
So, what would accessories would the 2024 iPad be designed to accommodate? Gurman cites the Magic Keyboard, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s ponder the riddle of the Apple Pencil. The second-generation Pencil attaches to a set of magnets and a wireless charger on the side of the iPad, designed specifically for the Pencil. (See how nice it is when the product and accessories are designed together?)
The second-generation Pencil is great. No notes. But when Apple redesigned the low-end iPad last year, it moved the iPad’s webcam to the device’s long side–apparently blocking the space where the Pencil 2 could have gone. Instead, the iPad uses the original Apple Pencil. As a result, it’s possible that Apple is going to have to reconsider its approach to the Apple Pencil yet again. I assume that Apple will find a way to make it all work, even if it means creating a new Pencil design to make it all make sense.
So what about the Magic Keyboard? Apple’s current design, introduced in 2020, floats the iPad above the keyboard via a magnetically attached cantilever. The reason for that extra engineering is sheer physics: without moving the device’s center of mass over the keyboard, the whole case would topple over backward. It’s a clever solution, but it reduces the amount of available space for keyboard rows (there are no function keys!), and the Magic Keyboard’s trackpad is pretty small, as Apple trackpads go.
Gurman’s report says the new accessory is bigger and more laptop-like. Laptops, of course, don’t cantilever over their keyboards–they’re just attached by a hinge all the way at the back. Laptops don’t tip over backward when you open them up because the bottom portion is a lot heavier than the top portion.
If Gurman’s reporting is accurate, then I’ve got to assume that the next generation of Magic Keyboard is going to put all its weight right underneath the keyboard. This is the approach that iPad Bluetooth keyboards have used, and they managed to make it work.
The key is going to be in how Apple designs the iPad to connect to such an accessory. Will there be some specific spots on the side of the iPad that will allow a hinge at the back of the keyboard to grab hold and keep it upright, laptop-style? Or will Apple continue to rely on strong magnets in the back of the iPad to attach to a relatively light surface connected to the keyboard with a hinge?
Regardless, Apple’s going to need to add some weight to that keyboard. And while you might think that adding weight is a bad thing, it’s got benefits. Even a slightly heavier Magic Keyboard won’t make the combined unit any heavier than a Mac laptop. A heavier keyboard would be able to have that larger trackpad and an additional row of function keys.
But here’s the best part: Apple could, for the first time, include a battery under that keyboard. Previous iPad keyboards from Apple have been powered by the Smart Connector, but imagine a keyboard that doubles as a battery pack and charger, allowing an iPad in the case to dramatically extend its battery life. That’s a pretty great set of features.
A lot of Gurman’s reports about the next-generation iPad Pro are pretty much what you’d expect: OLED displays and M3 processors. But a huge part of the iPad’s identity comes from its ability to adapt to different uses by way of its large collection of accessories. That’s why I’m excited about the prospect of Apple redesigning the iPad Pro for a new generation of accessories.