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Apple exploring MagSafe data, headphone connections for iPhone, iPad

Apple's standard 30-pin iPod cable and even its headphones could be replaced on future iPhones and iPads by new magnetic cables, much like the MagSafe power adapters currently used on MacBooks.

Apple's interest in a magnetic data and power cable for portable devices was revealed this week in a patent application discovered by AppleInsider. Named "Programmable Magnetic Connectors," the filing describes a series of "coded magnets" found in both a portable device and a data and power cable.

The filing includes an illustration of an iPad 2 with a forward-facing camera and associated cable that are described as having a "coded magnetic structure."

In its application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple notes that current coupler designs, like with the 30-pin dock connector or headphone jack found on existing iPhones and iPads, prevent a device from being properly sealed. This is why the connector port and headphone jack feature water sensors, to determine if water entered the device through one of these openings.

The use of MagSafe connectors not only for the data and power cable, but also headphones, could allow Apple to properly seal its devices and make it more difficult for moisture to damage the valuable electronics.

Apple's filing also notes that the male half of a data and power cable usually has pins or prongs that are exposed when it is not coupled to a device.

"Due to this exposure, the pins or prongs may be damages and render the connector/cable unusable," the application reads. "Additionally, many connectors are device and/or purpose specific. For example, they may have a certain number of pins or prongs that are configured in a particular manner. As such, each device may have multiple unique cables and connectors that are not compatible with other devices."

The solution proposed by Apple is a new universal cable, much like the existing 30-pin iPod connector, but one that features programmable magnets. These coded magnets, found inside both the cable and the portable device, would share identifying information on the device with the cable.

By sharing information from the magnets about the device, the cable could appropriately connect to it and provide the correct number of pins. The application describes a controller that would repurpose one or more of the pins on a cable to connect certain communication channels.

"The magnets (would) create a universal port that detects the coded magnet 'signature' of a particular cable type and reconfigures itself accordingly," the filing reads.

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The magnets found in the device and cabling could also be used to "repulse, eject, and/or prevent coupling of certain cables." In one example, a heat sensor is triggered and the device is automatically ejected.

The filing also describes a unique, magnet-powered headphone connector. In Apple's concept, the male headphone plug has multiple segments, but its full size would be concealed until it is paired with a smart magnet found on an iPhone, iPad or iPod.

Connecting the plug to a headphone jack would then fully extend the plug, revealing all of the connectors and segments, and allowing it to receive stereo audio and transmit microphone data.

Much like the pins in the data and power cable, the size of the audio plug could be determined based on the needs of the device as transmitted through the programmed magnet. In this way, a smaller device, like an iPod nano, could have a shallower headphone port, while larger devices could accommodate the full plug and all of its available connectors.

The application, made public by the USPTO this week, was first filed in July of 2011. It is credited to Brett Bilbrey, Aleksandar Pance, Peter Arnold, David I. Simon, Jean Lee, Michael D. Hillman, Gregory L. Tice, Vijay Iyer, and Bradly Spare.