The Shadowy World of iPhone Cases

Apple’s strict demands for secrecy from suppliers have been accused of fuelling worker mistreatment and concealing industrial pollution. Bloomberg describes a less dire effect: the temptation for iPhone accessory manufacturers to bet on leaked information to gain a head start over competitors.

In the weeks leading up to Apple’s Oct. 4 announcement about the new iPhone 4S, Tim Hickman lived and breathed rumors about the device. His company, Hard Candy Cases, makes protective covers for mobile phones, and he was determined to get a jump on production. After three separate manufacturing partners in China sent him detailed 3D models of an iPhone with a widened, pill-shaped “home” button and a slightly tapered back, Hickman decided to roll the dice. He paid $50,000 to make steel moldings to mass-produce cases for the new design and, on the morning of Apple’s announcement, began taking orders on his website. The gamble backfired: Apple’s new iPhone 4S included no major changes to the exterior design. The home button remained circular. Hickman suddenly owned $50,000 worth of paperweights ….

Hickman says he doesn’t pay for the specs. Factories in Shenzhen and Guangzhou provide them in hopes of getting his business. He declines to name his Asian partners but says they are the same factories that supply his competitors, including Case-Mate, Speck Products, and Incase. Speck and Incase deny using leaked designs. Case-Mate declined to comment, but in mid-September posted pictures online of new cases for a slimmer iPhone, similar to the prototypes from Hard Candy. It removed the images from its website after they were noticed by a technology blog. Using leaks from Asia “pisses Apple off,” says Hickman, whose products aren’t sold in the iPhone maker’s retail stores. “But it is what it is.”

The cacophonous Apple blogosphere suggests that leaked specs offer fairly dismal odds: StupidAppleRumors.com found that only 22% of rumours published in the two months before the new iPhone’s announcement were accurate.