Even with its highly publicized antenna problems, and perhaps in part because of those problems, the iPhone 4 has been a boon for case makers. Cases that normally serve to provide run-of-the-mill protection from scratches and drops were suddenly being promoted, by none other than Steve Jobs, as a fix for poor reception on Apple's latest iDevice. Unfortunately, as Apple's bumper supply ran dry, iPhone 4 customers, who searched in vain for available alternatives to the bumper, discovered the cost of Apple's notorious secrecy, which is a dramatic lag in availability of third-party accessories like cases.
Wireless Week caught up with some of the companies that work to provide products that protect and enhance the smartphone. As it turns out, the road to market for case makers is anything but easy, especially if you happen to be designing around the iPhone, one of the most closely guarded secrets in the industry.
First to Market
Stuart Nixdorff, CEO of ID8-Mobile, a blend of an electronics company, smart accessories provider and case maker, says the difference between designing a product around a BlackBerry device and an Apple device is night and day.
"With a normal phone, let's say, if you were part of the Built for BlackBerry program, you can get advanced information on the handset and have the pieces for the accessories available at launch," Nixdorff says.
"With the iPhone...it's a bet, and every year people make bets. Do I speculatively build more product, thinking they'll keep the same design? Do I guess and do two-thirds of my design in prototypes? Or do I sit and wait until I get the first phones?"
ID8-Mobile is different than a company that makes just cases in that it also makes Bluetooth accessories and actual electronics. For the iPhone 4, ID8 produced the MoGo Talk XD, an integrated Bluetooth headset and case system. This year was a bit different than years past, as leaks about Apple's product helped everyone get going a little bit earlier.
"For us, we didn't lock down the tooling until we got our first iPhone in our hands," Nixdorff says, noting that he knew of several other manufacturers who did release products into production 30 days prior to the release of the iPhone 4, and a couple that sent two products into production, knowing one or the other might be a bust depending on what Apple did.
"Being the first to market is still worth it for some companies," he says, but ID8 has the luxury of sitting back, as it can differentiate by releasing an integrated solution that offers more than just a case.
Jeff Sasaki, CEO of Element Case, a small company that makes sophisticated high-end aluminum cases for the iPhone, says that Apple's secrecy is actually an advantage for his company, as others that use plastic injection molding have a longer time to market once the iPhone 4 is actually released.
"We can wait for the iPhone to come out and we can have the basic design done but then when it comes down to exact fit, we have the luxury of waiting for the iPhone to come out and we can make final modifications to our tooling path and go right into production," Sasaki says, noting that with injection molding, where the smallest mistake can be costly, it can take anywhere from 30-40 days before they can start getting parts.
"It was frustrating when Element Case was doing more plastic injection molds of parts, because we put so much time and money into tool making and then Apple goes and changes the design," Sasaki says. "Now we welcome it, we want them to change the design, because it's the one advantage we have over everybody else."
Sasaki says that while the iPhone's antenna problems have boosted interest in cases, he's not comfortable with Jobs' claims that a case is a sufficient fix for the problem.
"As case makers, we know that cases won't solve the problem. When Steve Jobs basically told everyone to just go buy a case, that basically told everyone that a case was going to solve the problem, but we in the industry know that's not the way it works," he says.
Sasaki says that if anything, Apple's antenna problems make his company want to expand beyond the iDevices to other OEMs. "We're not going forward just with Apple, especially for this antenna problem, we don't want to take the blame for that... If they don't fix the problem, we want to start pushing out cases for other companies."
Otterbox is another custom case maker that operates on a whole different scale than Element Case. Otterbox makes cases for various devices from BlackBerry and Apple, to Nokia and Samsung.
Kristin Golliher, executive of public relations for Otterbox, agrees that planning around a company like Apple makes things a bit more tricky.
"We have an in-house engineering department that will make some guesses along the way... but you just never know," she says, noting that the unprecedented drama that unfolded over the iPhone 4 leak on Gizmodo's website at least gave Otterbox a hint at what the iPhone 4 would look like.
When asked whether it's better if a company like Apple changes the form factor of a device, Golliher says that it's a mixed blessing. "I think it depends on the device. Last summer, we got lucky with the same form factor for the 3G and 3GS. We didn't have to go back to the drawing board. However, there wasn't a lot of buzz around that update. With the iPhone 4, the demand that we had and still have for that case is unreal."
Some 140,000 people signed up on Otterbox's website to be notified when the new iPhone 4 Defender cases would be released. Golliher says she's never seen that kind of response to a phone and that in the end, hype around the iPhone trickles down to all those companies that make products supporting those devices.
Smartphones Beget Accessories
While cases and accessories themselves are relatively small items in comparison to the handsets for which they're built, the market itself is set for massive growth. ABI Research estimates that aftermarket revenue per handset was $17.49 in 2008. By 2015, that number is expected to grow by 5.5 percent to $25.36 per handset.
Michael Morgan, senior analyst of mobile devices for ABI Research, says that the considerable investment people make in their mobile devices is the perfect starting point for a robust secondary accessories market. Not surprisingly, the iPhone can be found at the root of what has happened with the popularity of cases.
"You buy a phone, you're going to get an accessory for it. More people are buying accessories with their handsets now than they were a few years ago. A key trend on that one is the protective cases. When the iPhone started getting big, it really kind of spurred this trend toward protective cases for your smartphones," Morgan says.
According to Morgan, iPhone users really do worry a little bit more about protecting their precious devices. "You could expect half of all smartphones to have a case purchased for it regardless of whether there was one in the box. With the iPhone, that number was upwards of 70 percent," he says, noting that those numbers are for earlier versions and don't even take into account what the iPhone 4 did for the case market.