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Why The iPad Pro Smart Connector Accessory Business Isn’t Booming

The snap-in iPad port ought to be a platform for accessory innovation, but not all accessory makers see the point. Apple says to stay tuned.

Why The iPad Pro Smart Connector Accessory Business Isn’t Booming
[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

The Smart Connector is supposed to be one of the iPad Pro’s standout features. Instead of making you deal with Bluetooth pairing for keyboards, or tangled Lightning cables for charging your tablet, the connector–which is reminiscent of the one Microsoft created for its Surface tablets–provides a hassle-free, snap-in magnetic connection along the iPad’s bottom edge.

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[Photo: via Apple]
But nearly two years after Apple introduced the Smart Connector on the original iPad Pro, only four accessories support it. One of those is the own Smart Keyboard, Apple’s first and only keyboard cover, which is available for the iPad Pro’s 9.7-inch, 10.5-inch, and 12.9-inch variants. The other products–two kinds of keyboards and one docking station–are all made by Logitech and are sold at Apple Stores. That’s a far skimpier selection than you might have expected back in the fall of 2015.

Accessory makers offered several explanations for the slow start. One source cited wait times and high costs for Smart Connector components. Other accessory makers simply praised Bluetooth as a better fit, at least for iPad keyboards.

Apple confirmed that multiple companies are now developing Smart Connector accessories. But for now, what could be a platform for accessory innovation instead seems like an afterthought.

Picking A Winner

Apple has leaned on a close partnership with Logitech to bring additional Smart Connector accessories to market, cluing the accessory manufacturer in on new products ahead of time in a way that Apple rarely does. When the first iPad Pro arrived in late 2015, Logitech had a Smart Connector keyboard ready on launch day. When Apple released the 9.7-inch iPad Pro in March 2016, Logitech released a Smart Connector charging base less than a month later. And when the 10.5-inch iPad Pro arrived last month, a new Smart Connector keyboard from Logitech arrived alongside it.

While this partnership did give iPad owners an alternative to Apple’s own Smart Keyboard, it may have created complications for other vendors, who must compete with both Apple and Logitech.

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“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,” said Kelly McElroy, a spokeswoman for Incipio. “So we are developing with having a point of difference in mind rather than developing to be quick to market.”

When I talked to Carlos Del Toro, Incipio’s director of product development, he initially said that the company was waiting for Apple to issue testing standards to companies other than Logitech, and that the necessary testing components were not readily available. But in response to follow-up questions, Del Toro backed off those claims, and Incipio acknowledged that it hadn’t yet finished developing a product, despite being interested in doing so since late 2015.

Either way, Del Toro doesn’t begrudge Apple for giving Logitech a head start.

“They’re very cautious with what they do, and they want to make sure they get it right,” he says. “It’s one thing to develop with a partner that is custom, and another thing to develop a platform so that others can use it.”

Other sources pointed to issues with procuring Smart Connector components. Linn Huang, an analyst with IDC, says he spoke with an accessory maker that claimed longer lead times for those components compared to other accessories. And another vendor, which asked to remain anonymous, told me that getting components has been time- and cost-prohibitive.

“For a business like us, we’ve got a very rapid product development cycle,” this source said. “When you’ve got a long lead time component that’s close to six months, that’s just not tenable.”

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[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

Where Bluetooth Is Better

That’s not to say accessory makers are desperate to abandon what they know in favor of the Smart Connector.

Brydge, for instance, gives its aluminum iPad keyboards 180-degree hinges that turn the tablet into a clamshell laptop. The Smart Connector’s spring-loaded pins snap in a fixed angle with about five degrees of leeway, making a Smart Connector version of Brydge’s current design impossible, says Nicholas Smith, Brydge’s CEO.

“The thing with the pogo pin design, in particular with the way that Apple’s implemented it on the iPad, is it’s incredibly limiting,” Smith says.

Smith hasn’t ruled out using the Smart Connector, but it would likely have to be for a different kind of product. “Looking ahead, there is no reason why the Smart Connector wouldn’t be considered for future Brydge products if the application is right,” he says.

Salman Sajid, the creator of the Touchtype iPad keyboard case, sees other advantages for Bluetooth. Because it’s a wireless standard, users can detach their keyboards from the iPad for desktop use and presentations, or use the keyboard with a different device, such as an iMac. Neither scenario would be possible with the Smart Connector alone.

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Most importantly, Bluetooth allows users to prop up their iPads in portrait mode, which Sajid argues is a more satisfying way to write. The Smart Connector only works with keyboards in landscape mode.

“I’m trying to go for the people who really like the distraction-free environment of portrait typing,” Sajid says. “To use [the Smart Connector], you have to go back to that traditional laptop form factor, which is taking away a whole selling point of the iPad.”

Like Nicholas Smith of Brydge, Sajid says he might still consider a Smart Connector product in the future. But as a one-man business, Touchtype can’t afford the costs, wait times, and other potential uncertainties that come with Apple’s Made for iPad (MFi) licensing. The mature Bluetooth technology allows him to bypass those issues and bring new products to market sooner.

“A larger manufacturer may be able to stomach that risk, and may have a better existing relationship because they have other MFi products, so they know how to navigate that,” Sajid says. “But for me, personally, it didn’t make sense for that reason.”

Besides, accessory makers point out that Bluetooth’s biggest downside–the need to include an internal battery that adds a bit of bulk and requires an occasional recharge–isn’t such a big deal, especially now that the batteries last for months rather than the weeks of earlier models.

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“One benefit of the Smart Connector is that it allows users to power their keyboard from the tablet’s power supply,” Jeff Meek, a senior product manager for Zagg, says in an email. “But where our keyboards have up to a two-year battery life onboard under average use, we don’t see power as a significant pain point to solve through the connector.”

Looking ahead, though, the real advantage for the Smart Connector isn’t just the hassle-free, powered connection, but the possibilities it could open up for the iPad as a whole. Imagine, for instance, a keyboard that could charge the iPad through a built-in battery, or one with extra storage that integrated with Apple’s new Files app in iOS 11. Perhaps there’s even room for more kinds of input devices, such as a MIDI keyboard dock that didn’t require toting around an extra Lightning cable and stand.

The Smart Connector is still full of potential. Now peripheral makers just have to realize it.

About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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