Why are after-market casings so popular with consumers especially for portable devices? Are they just about protecting the product? Are existing product designs too boring? Have consumers lost confidence in the quality of product manufacturing? Or, do they just want to customize their devices to be unique and special, as we have seen in Asia’s extensive customization culture?
The iPhone is beautifully designed, engineered, and manufactured. Apple has used high-quality materials to avoid scratches and heavier damage that come along with daily use. There are no painted parts, which would easily scratch to reveal the substrate. The early complaint about the physical construction was that its sleek finish made the phone too slippery. The absence of grip details on the surface, and the aluminum casing of the first generation, made the problem worse. Apart from this flaw, the physical form of the iPhone is well-designed, and I think it has great potential to display the aged patina that comes from long life and high-quality materials. Which makes me wonder: Why cover it up with a cheap plastic cover?
Leather goods and high-quality watches are great examples of products that can age well.
You can trace the after-market casings to the first generation of iPods, when it became apparent that the polycarbonate displays were easily scratched. The protective casings can be expensive — up to $50 for simple protection and up to $80 if you add functional improvements. Even with today’s more scratch-proof surface materials such as glass, these cases can be a necessity for those who carry their phones with keys and other hard edged objects. Protecting the display and preventing accidental activation of controls is essential, and customers can choose from a massive selection of styles, materials, patterns and functionalities.
Companies took advantage of the shortcomings of the original designs and created a whole new industry around customization and product improvement of existing devices adding a huge product offering.
A culture of super-sized devices
Casings represent a sort of “double everything” trend in product manufacturing, i.e., doubling the design, engineering, manufacturing, packaging and shipping efforts. Additionally, the devices are getting much bigger in size when a secondary material wall thickness is added. The choice of material can alter the performance of the device, e.g. when a rubber casing makes it hard to get the device out of the pocket. In some designs, the original design is not even visible or touchable anymore. What is the point then of a nicely designed and engineered portable product?
Portable electronics manufacturers should invest more in final product quality to achieve longer lasting and really portable products people like to use. There are simply too many things that are too cheaply made. Products that “age well” material- and quality-wise, are more environmentally responsible and, in my opinion, more beautiful.
Of course, not all after-market casings are wasteful; some satisfy needs that are unmet in the product itself. Arm and belt holders are often not supplied (Belkin, Sport Armband); battery extension covers (Incase, Power Slider) have their place as a result of the limited battery life of Apple products; stands are critical for those who often use their portable devices as displays (Crystal Jacket).
A new direction for this paradigm
What if a product came in two forms? One form (A) could be a durable, fully finished version; the second form (B) could be a raw sheet metal core engine, so to speak, that the customer can customize with an after-market case of their choosing. The latter device would perhaps be available at a lower price point, and with an after-market cover wouldn’t be bigger in size than the fully completed version.