The bumper experiment - Someone is buying all the fake iPhone cases

The curious case of the red iPhone bumpers - Part 2

This is the second part of an article where I explore the murky world of Chinese iPhone accessory manufacturers. You can read the first part here. When Apple puts a special edition Product (RED) iPhone bumper in the market, how long does it take for knockoffs to appear?

The original idea sounded like a cost-effective plan, at least in the short term. What I couldn't expect was the difficulty to source cases from different manufacturers as they all use different descriptions and prices. You can find multitude of products sold as a 'stylish designer dual bumper', but you really know what they mean. The pictures on Amazon and eBay didn't always represent the end product though. Trying to figure out how far the clone is from the original is pretty pointless if you guide yourself with the pictures. Reading users reviews is the confirmation that you're not getting what you see there.

After some browsing I decided to go for some basic knockoffs based on Apple's original bumpers. Why do I say basic? Because the people in the Chinese factory think it could be cool to combine plastic and rubber colours for extra originality. The clear plastic option is a popular one, which I decided not to choose in the end. Perhaps at that point I was hoping the person at the warehouse would drop some freebies in the parcel for me to check out but I didn't have the pleasure.

At this point I should mention Apple is very picky when it comes to the colours of its products. Without going to the extent of of Henry Ford's "You can have any colour as long as it's black", the company ha traditionally offered a handful of colours to choose from. At the moment, iPhone bumpers come in black, white, blue, green, orange and pink only. And the new Product (RED), of course. Shady manufacturers are committed to offer more colour combinations and they simply cater for it. You can easily spot some unusual mixes with plastic component in one colour and the protective rubber in a different one. Something like bubblegum with two flavours sandwiched in between.

Something more difficult to track are original colours that Apple doesn't produce, as the clones tend to stick to the familiar Apple pastels. This is what really caught my eye, as they offer something new -- apart from a cheaper selling point. Without much trouble I managed to find clear versions, yellow and red. I thought it could be interesting to check them out, without even thinking Apple could be saving the red colour for a PRODUCT (RED) collaboration.

The purchasing process

For less than what Apple charges for a bumper I placed four orders on Amazon from different merchants for a dozen iPhone cases. Some were shipped from Hong Kong, others from a warehouse in East London. As the parcels arrived and I piled them diligently on the side of my desk, I started realising there were some strong similarities in all the cases. Despite all of them coming from different parts of the world and different sellers they looked like they were born in the same factory.

A concise "For 4G 4S Bumpers" in Apple's Myriad Pro font type does the trick.

The packaging, as simple as it is, was identical. Apple has its logo on the front and explains this is an "iPhone 4 bumper". The Chinese equivalent doesn't risk it including any logo or an specific mention of the phone model. The simple description "For 4G 4S Bumpers" using Apple's preferred font for marketing, Myriad Pro, does the job just fine.

To the touch, the materials feel somehow different. Some rubber bands have more grip while others had some type of shiny coating. The advertised “metal” and “steel” buttons differed in size and design from Apple's own, making it a key quality check that easy to spot without unpacking the product. Of course, their all plastic buttons coated in a matte silver shade.

Fortunately the cases worked as advertised. Except one that was meant to be used with the original iPhone 4 -- the location of the buttons changed slightly on the 4S and Verizon model -- the rest fits perfectly. The holes open to plug the dock connector and access the headphone jack aren't perfect as they are too tight to work with other iPhone accessories. This also happens with Apple's own product, so it's a shame they didn't address this themselves.

The durability test

After a couple of weeks using these bumpers daily you can start noticing that their condition deteriorates quickly. The white one quickly turns grey, the bright colours begin to fade, being the black bumper the most colour-resistant. Removing the cases frequently, to fit a think headphone jack for instance, has its toll. The edges of the rubber band become softer and significantly lose.

I cannot carry to two iPhones with me to test how good the official bumper is, but from my experience in the last year, these things would happen to the original one at some point too. On top of their poor construction, the Chinese equivalents feel like they're degrading really fast. This could be my perception of cheapness, or the fact that I have plenty of replacements at home in case I'm not satisfied with the one I currently use. Who knows?

Lessons learned

Thanks to this wacky project I've discovered a couple of things I wouldn't have expected. The most striking thing is to witness the immense popularity of the counterfeit market. People are buying these things. None of the cases purchased included any reference to Apple or it's products although the industrial design was almost exactly the same. The differences between an official $29 Apple bumper and the $1 Chinese have to do more with poor tooling an manufacturing rather than an effort to avoid any copyright law. To me, they look like direct clones. There's no effort or design element that indicates these factories didn't want to copy the original bumper.

The amount of colour combinations available is tremendous. When Apple announced its PRODUCT (RED) red bumper, Chinese knock-offs were already in the shelves and warehouses for some time. It took mine less than a week to arrive from Hong Kong before Apple's announcement. We've seen a lot of case manufacturers leaking specs about the next ultra-secret Apple product and it becomes apparent that these guys have a lot of insider information.

I'm very picky about the provenance of food, making sure I know what I eat. When it comes to cheap accessories and gadgets, I had never questioned what goes into their production, who creates them. By experiencing the really low margins per unit those manufacturers and resellers are working with makes me wonder what happens behind the scenes. In addition to the intellectual property theft, I'm also worried about the ethical issues bringing these accessories to the market. Somebody is capitalising on the popularity of high tech gadgets at a cost.