Ports are the unsung heroes of Apple’s biggest revolutions. We got USB with the iMac, FireWire and the 30-pin connector with the iPod, Lightning with the iPhone and iPad, and USB-C with the new MacBook. Whether the ports are fledgling or proprietary, Apple’s biggest breakthroughs have often centered around a new way to connect and charge, and its latest one might be making a surprise appearance on the next iPhone.
A recent schematic leak seemingly provides some evidence for the inclusion of a Smart Connector on the next-generation iPhone Plus. Depending on which rumor you want to believe, it appears that Apple is wrestling with the decision to christen the larger 5.5-inch iPhone with the same Pro status it bestowed on the iPad, complete with the addition of the magnetic Smart Connector. According to the drawing and a previous leaked photo, the port is located on the back of the device, rather than the edge like on the iPad Pro, which suggests Apple has something different in mind than just a tiny Smart Keyboard.
With the iPad Pro, the Smart Connector is the first step toward positioning the tablet as a laptop replacement, but its purpose on a potential iPhone Pro isn’t quite so straightforward. And whether it happens this year or next, I think it’s a logical step for the continued growth and maturation of the iPhone.
In its current form, the Smart Connector’s intelligence basically boils down to its ease of use. Like the Microsoft Surface’s Type Cover that clearly inspired it, the Smart Connector is built specifically to work with the Smart Keyboard; just attach it to the magnetic connector and start typing, without dealing with, as Apple says, “cords, pairing, or plugs.” Other than that, it’s no smarter than using a Bluetooth keyboard.
But the potential of the Smart Connector is much greater than an attached keyboard. Like the switch to USB on the iMac or Lightning on the iPhone, Apple is making a somewhat complicated process just a little bit easier. Like every great thing Apple does, simplicity is key.
Take Apple’s often-maligned Smart Battery Case. Uncharacteristically ugly and bulky, its beauty isn’t in its outer aesthetics but rather its inner elegance. Unlike other powered cases that require you to constantly monitor your levels, Apple’s solution seamlessly switches between the internal and external batteries until they’re both drained, keeping you constantly notified of each.
It could be that the Smart Battery Case is a precursor to the kind of functionality the Smart Connector will enable. A series of swappable add-on cases and modules would give the iPhone the customization users desire while still letting Apple control the experience. Things like camera controls and lenses, extra storage, and of course batteries could make the iPhone the first successful modular phone, while giving 6 and 6s users a significant reason to upgrade.
Along with cases, the positioning of the connector naturally lends itself to comfortable placement in a dock. While a series of kits might expand the functionality of the iPhone, a dock could allow Apple to use the Smart Connector to change the perception of the iPhone, much like it did with the iPad Pro. Assuming it’s part of a rebranding of the 5.5-inch model from Plus to Pro, it offers an opportunity to pivot from a powerful handset to a small next-generation mobile computer.
Despite a proliferation of third-party charging stands, Apple only offers a single, bare-bones iPhone Lightning Dock for $49, and it took Logitech to create the Logi Base, an iPad Pro dock that uses the Smart Connector for charging. But with the iPad Pro, a keyboard makes the most sense, and while I’m quite sure Logitech is already prototyping an ultra-portable Smart Keyboard for the iPhone, I think Apple’s plans are bigger than typing.
A Smart Dock could expand the iPhone’s capability in ways that just aren’t possible now. For example, a speaker dock could make the Hey Siri function rival the usefulness of Amazon’s Echo. An audio dock could turn your iPhone into a Sonos-like sound system. And an Apple Watch-style magnetic inductive charging dock would take a little bit of friction out of having to charge your iPhone every night.
But the most intriguing potential for a Smart Dock is on the desktop. Apple’s Pro devices are all linked by their ability to let you work faster and more efficiently, and a desktop charging dock that expands the iPhone to a larger screen or offers the ability to connect a hard drive would be a real game-changer for the iPhone, expanding it far beyond its current capabilities.
On the iPad Pro, the Smart Connector might be little more than an easy way to connect a keyboard, but its potential is far greater. It could be the thing that turns the iPhone from smart to genius.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.