The Eternal Conflict Between Apple and Customers: iPhone Cases

| Analysis

Image credit: Apple

Apple goes to some trouble to make its iPhones (and iPads) beautiful and joyful to hold, just as they are out of the box. On the other hand, customers love to protect and personalize their iOS devices with cases that have colorful designs. This is an enduring conflict of interest between Apple and customers. Apple probably wouldn't mind if iPhone cases disappeared, but it may be a long time coming.

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There is an eternal conflict between the beauty of an iPhone sans case and the desire to protect that beauty. Those cases that tend to let the natural beauty of, say, an iPhone 5s show through can be highly favored. However, those kinds of cases often don't provide the ultimate protection that may be desired, especially for rugged environments.

The Designers's Conundrum

There are several different conflicting elements for the case designer. Perhaps much of it comes from the evolving beauty of the Apple iPhones and iPads. Recall, the iPhone 3G was basically a curvy chunk of black plastic with a display, and any case that obscured the rather wanting design aesthetics was not much of a problem. Nowadays, few customers are eager to cover up their drop-dead gorgeous gold iPhone 5s.

I spoke with Jordan Vater with OtterBox in Ft. Collons, Colorado, and he told me: "Over time, customers have told us that the iPhone's aesthetics are increasingly important." That has resulted in OtterBox products like the Symmetry Series that offers protection yet helps preserve that which attracted the customer to the iPhone in the first place, especially the colors of the iPhone 5c.

Another (conflicting) factor is that many people like to personalize their iPhones. Out in public, especially at the local mall, I have seen many colorful case designs, sometimes even with embedded ornamental jewelry, that women use on their iPhones. (Maybe it's a Colorado thing.) And so there's the desire by Apple to make a beautiful phone, and the customer is attracted to it initially, but then they may cover it up with personalized ornamentation.

Chris Paterson, General Manager of Design and Product Marketing at Griffin Technology, told me in an email:

The feedback we have received directly from our customers as well as sales data points to the trend of customization. People increasingly look at their mobile technology as an extension of themselves and want to accessorize it accordingly.... Most recently we've worked really hard to find the sweet spot in the middle of protection and self-expression. We know people don't want to sacrifice the security of drop protection for a case that allows self-expression. Our new Identity line was our answer to this.

Yet another factor is the intended use of the iPhone. For example, my current case for my iPhone 5s is the Griffin iClear, and it's especially nice when demoing to friends. I am quite aware that if I were to drop the iPhone in this polycarbonate case on asphalt, the case would probably crack. I've had that happen before, but the polycarbonate protected the iPhone. However, if I were planning to go hiking or horseback riding, I'd put the iPhone in a case that offers better short-term protection, say, the Otterbox Commuter or the Rokform Fuzion+.

On the other hand, if one can't afford several cases, a compromise may be necessary. For example, the OtterBox Reflex and iLuv Vyneer do double duty: transparency and good protection. (In my review of the Reflex I had some complaints, but there's no doubt it can do both jobs.)

The iLuv Vyneer: Soft, protective edges and polycarbonate transparency.

The choice of materials versus the degree of protection comes into play. For example, those developers who have a preference for aluminum have had to be careful not to cover the top and bottom of the iPhone with metal because that's where the radio antennas are. Rokform and Kloqe chose two very different design approaches that reveal the design challenges.

This is the eternal design dilemma of the smartphone case maker. As iPhones get cooler, curvier and more colorful, there will likely be increasing customer demand for cases that offer some degree of protection, yet allow them to appreciate the aesthetics that drove them to, say, the iPhone 5c, 5s (and 6) in the first place.

Apple's Design Evolution

Finally, my guess is that Apple would always like to have its customers showcasing the glorious, bare iPhone. While many cases take extra pains to let the Apple logo show through, and that's good advertising, it must greatly annoy Jonny Ive to face the dilemma of building a beautiful iPhone and yet have it subject to the need for protection. Apple's rumored movement to a sapphire display is probably a step towards resolving that dilemma.

Another factor is the (sensible) rumor that Apple would like to move a thinner and thinner bezel, perhaps no bezel at all in a wrap around display. This would make it hard for case makers to provide that edge wrap around feature that keeps the face of the iPhone away from any surface when placed face down. A slight wrap around is another good reason to move to a scratch proof sapphire display.

In the end, no matter how beautiful and rugged iPhones become, there will always be people who want to add some extra protection, especially if they're the outdoors type. But it certainly seems that Apple wouldn't be especially annoyed if they could come up with the magic materials formula that allows the company to make a drop-dead gorgeous iPhone that would never, ever need additional protection.

The Final Conflict

And even then, after all that work by Apple, some customers would probably still want to personalize with a cool case. The design issue may never be truly solved until smartphones disappear and some new technology simply suspends an image in space before us.

Or, perhaps in the meantime, the smartphone makers will develop a foldable display, like the  one seen in the (1997-2002) TV series, "Earth: Final Conflict." In this design, the display rolls right up into the (admittedly ugly) handle.

Image credit: Earth Final Conflict Wiki.

At that point, it will be, literally, case closed.

Comments

dannsh

Take a look at carved.com they have some striking phone covers.

Bregalad

As you say an edge-to-edge display would prevent the use of a case, but that’s exactly when a case is necessary.
If you have a bezel then it can be designed to absorb shock without transferring force directly to the edge of the display panel. Eliminate the bezel and the display has to absorb the force, greatly increasing the odds of a shattered screen.
Nobody tries to drop their phone, but it happens and if the immediate result is a cracked screen then you might think twice about buying the same brand of phone next time.
As for iPhones being “joyful to hold” I have to disagree. The iPhone 4 has to be one of the worst phones ever made when it comes to how it feels in the hand: square, almost sharp edges. The 3GS, while not much to look at, was clearly designed to feel nice in the hand.

Lee Dronick

One of the reasons I want a case on my iPhone is that the phone is too smooth, too easy to slip from my grip. If the finish had more of an eggshell texture then I wouldn’t worry so much about accidently dropping it.

Or I could get one of these: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/06/30/japanese_isopod_iphone_case_is_creepy_and_great_looking.html

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