The curious case of the red iPhone bumpers

Why would Apple release a new red number ahead of the iPhone 5 launch?

With all the rumours around a new iPhone coming in a matter of days with a more than likely elongated form factor, the latest Apple announcement is somehow disconcerting. The company has just announced a new edition of its popular iPhone 4 and 4S bumper in collaboration with (PRODUCT) RED. This is, a red iPhone bumper.

Many would see this move coming — Apple has released plenty of its more affordable gadgets and accessories in red to support the campaign against AIDS. In addition to iPods, iPad owners can buy a special edition red Smart Cover and Smart Case since the accessories hit the shelves for the first time.

The iPhone bumpers have been with us since the introduction of the iPhone 4 two years ago. Remember that in the midst of the 'antennagate' Apple decided to compensate early adopters with a free bumper as a work around the 'death grip' that would fix any reception issue. I don't have any sales figures, but a lot of people got a bumper for free back then. There was even an app for that!

Two years is a lot, specially when a rumoured new iPhone 5 could render these obsolete. For me the announcement of the red iPhone bumper meant something completely different. As part of some whacky investigative piece I was preparing for the blog, I have come across this red iPhone bumper before. In fact, I have one on my desk right now. Let me explain.

What about buying as many fake bumpers as you can for the money Apple charges for an authentic one?

Exclusive novelty junk

Once of the perks of writing about Apple gadgets is that people approach you with all type of accessories for review. I insist I'm more interested in the software and not so much in the hardware, but the requests keep coming. Over the years, I have used and reviewed cases for all the iPhone models I've owned — all of them. From the pricy machined aluminium ones from Element Case or the Kickstarter-funded i+Case, the ingenious iPUP, right down to the despicable Chinese knock-offs.

Seeing this market bloom in front of me sounded like a great idea for an article. Whether you are in Canal Street in New York or Camden Town in London, the image is the same: piles of cheap iPhone cases, clearly a customisation winner in front of the fractured RIM and Android mobile world. At least on the under $3 accessory front.

Among all the street market plastic junk, the iPhone bumper is the king. I have seen the same crappy cases unashamedly sold as Apple rip-offs in stalls, your pop-and-mom shops, convenience stores and online retailers. The counterfeit packaging is so ubiquitous that I even doubted about Apple's choice to market their own. A quick reality check on my nearest Apple Store is all I need to realise there must be a factory in Asia churning these like popcorn.

The trashy side of Apple's industrial design

When I first got my iPhone 4 I went for the genuine bumper that sells $29-£26. I like it for three reasons: It looks alright and doesn't hide the device. I wouldn't say it's minimalist, but at least it doesn't change radically the appearance. It doesn't add much built either.

It also offers a soft rubbery grip instead of the cold sharp feel of the aluminium edges. You can still slip it in your pocket quite easily. Finally, it offers some minor protection against bumps, critically protecting the glass sides without any type of sticker (as in an Invisible Shield). At least it avoids any scratches when you leave the iPhone on a table.

With a product using these materials, there's an issue with durability. I've seen a green bumper at home lose its vibrant colour in a matter of weeks. With my black bumper the extensive rubbing and everyday use led the rubber parts to separate from the plastic core. Of course, I needed a replacement.

Faced with the challenge of finding a suitable case for an iPhone that could be obsolete as soon as a new version comes out I wanted to be conservative. I have a ridiculous stock of spares that I haven't gifted yet, but I still wanted to go for a bumper. What would you do in this situation? Seeing that the Chinese clones sell for $1 I didn't have much to lose. This is when I decide to begin the experiment and spend as much as Apple charges on cheap knock-offs.

Continue reading about the bumper experiment in the second part