CES: Making the case against smartphone cases

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 8, 2013

From The News Desk

I was expecting CES to be a lot of things. Busy. Loud. Exhausting. But I wasn't expecting all of the condoms. Or, as the many companies producing them would probably prefer they be called, "device cases."

You can't throw a rock at any of the main exhibition halls without hitting a case maker. Some tout the strength of their case, claiming that it will protect your iPhone from all kinds of dangers. Others tout their case's water resistance, promising a healthy phone no matter how many times you take it swimming or accidentally drop it in the toilet. Still more add a bit of extra battery life or, in some cases, just another pop of color.

It'll only be a matter of time before someone builds a case for a case. Or a case that does everything those other cases do but only adds some bullshit percentage of weight and heft to otherwise svelte devices. Here's a question: If a device maker touts their new phone's thinness and lightness as a selling point, and a customer puts a clunky case on it, do the manufacturer's efforts really matter?

It isn't surprising that so many companies would want to get in on the mobile accessory game. People buy smartphones, people get sick of breaking their smartphones or want a few more hours of battery life, so people (hopefully) break out their wallets for a fix. But how can so many companies and people be content with simply "augmenting" the work of others?

Or, to pick up on my favorite metaphor: It's as if all of these companies are content with shipping new candy wrappers, never mind the lack of differentiation from what came before, instead of shipping something wildly different or – dream big – making a new candy bar.

Some, like Mophie and Quirky founder Ben Kaufman, aren't. After Quirky raised a $68 million round led by Andreessen Horowitz, he told me that he founded Quirky because he "didn't want to spend the rest of my life building iPhone condoms." (So, yes, you can thank Mr. Kaufman for that bait-and-switch up top.) Quirky may have gone back on that premise just a little bit with its iPhone-accessory-producing Fab partnership, but on the whole the company focuses on much more than skinning Apple products.

This isn't to say that some case makers aren't taking the category in interesting directions. Many tech bloggers swear by the Mophie cases and appreciate the extra battery life, especially during hectic events like CES or SXSW. Other, blue-collar workers love their Otterbox cases, which have saved plenty of phones from being ruined after a fall from a tree stand or a few hours in the mud.

But there are only so many use cases (pun intended) that can be covered before companies start to become redundant. Woohoo, your case is waterproof! So is theirs, theirs, and theirs. Yours is the most durable on the market? Funny, the guy across the show room is saying the same thing. You two should fight to the death. (Or whatever contest is appropriate in that situation.)

I've spent the weeks leading up to CES convincing myself that all of its naysayers are wrong, that there is going to be some real innovation presented within the event's confines. I haven't been disappointed so far, and there are a bunch of cool things on display, but the prevalence of smartphone cases offers any skeptic the perfect thing to point to and say "That, right there. That's why events like CES don't matter. Who cares about smartphone cases?"

And that's a problem.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]