Apple’s retail stores have suspended sales of iPhone 4 slide-on cases because of concerns about trapped dirt causing scratches and cracks — the so-called “Glassgate” issue.
The ban is impacting at least half-a-dozen case makers who expected to have a blockbuster holiday season, said a source who works in the case industry and asked for anonymity.
At least one manufacturer has hundreds of thousands of battery pack cases that have been suspended by Apple’s stores, despite being certified by Apple’s “Made for iPhone” program.
“Glassgate is a real problem,” said the source. “Apple is not approving slide-on cases right now for its stores.”
The problem is that Apple’s chain of 317 stores worldwide is the biggest outlet for many accessory makers. The market for iPhone add-ons is estimated at more than $2 billion.
The issue also throws into question Apple’s bold design decisions. Apple may have pushed the boat out a bit too far with the iPhone 4. First there was Antennagate, then the white iPhone 4 delay (because of light leaking into the camera) and now Glassgate.
“If they didn’t have a glass back they wouldn’t have a problem,” the source said.
As first reported by Ryan Block of Gdgt, Apple is investigating whether the constant action of sliding cases on and off the glass-backed iPhone can cause scratches and eventually cracks, said the source. The iPhone 4’s back is not made from the same toughened Corning Gorilla Glass used on the front. The Glassgate issue is not affected by snap-on cases, our source said.
Apple is slowly evaluating each and every iPhone 4 case at a secret case testing facility. Some may be approved before the holidays. It’s literally on a case-by-case basis (pun intended), the source said.
One popular case maker, which makes a variety of slider cases sold at Apple’s stores, confirmed that Apple isn’t stocking iPhone 4 sliders but is carrying sliders for other iPhone models.
“They’re evaluating every case one at a time,” said the source, who also asked to remain anonymous through fear of upsetting Apple. “They’re being very vigorous. We’re still waiting for a final verdict.”
Apple’s ban includes Mophie’s Juice Pack Air, a slide-on battery pack. Mophie has ordered hundreds of thousands of Juice Pack Air cases, our source said, expecting them to be sold through Apple’s retail stores. Another source in the case industry independently confirmed Mophie’s big production run.
“We heard they ordered monster, monster quantities for that,” said the source, who also asked to remain anonymous. “More than 100,000.”
Ironically, Apple has certified the Juice Pack Air case as “Made for iPhone,” a program that guarantees third-party products meet certain performance standards. However, the MFi division and the stores are separate and make decisions independently.
When asked to comment, Ross Howe, Mophie’s VP of marketing and new business development, emailed the following:
“The Mophie Juice Pack Air for iPhone 4 is currently available at our website, www.mophie.com, and at AT&T stores nationwide,” he wrote. “The product features design and electronics enhancements that make it the most advanced of the seven generations of the Juice Pack line, and we have had an amazing response from consumers since it launched in September. We maintain a strong partnership with Apple and will continue to innovate new solutions to help iPhone users get more from their device.”
While most cases are cheap to make, case makers must invest at least $250,000 for the molds, our source said, and many have ordered big production runs.
The Glassgate issue may even not be a real problem. Tim Hickman, an iPod/iPhone accessory veteran and CEO of Hard Candy Cases, said there is no issue with trapped dirt — Glassgate is a perception problem, not a real problem.
“I’ve shipped 22,000 units and not heard a single complaint,” he said. “If there was a problem, we would have heard about it by now. I’m very suspect that there’s a real issue there.”
Hard Candy cases are not sold in Apple’s Stores — and so his business is unaffected by Apple’s ban.
However, as Ryan Block tried to point out in his original post: Apple is very sensitive to public perception issues. First there was Antennagate, then the white iPhone 4 delay, and now the possibility that the glass back may be prone to scratches or cracks. Real or not, the company is actively investigating the issue. In the meantime, it is being very cautious about selling potentially problematic cases through its retail stores.
Apple didn’t respond to two requests for comment.
We checked for slider cases at Apple stores in California, Arizona and Texas. All the stores had iPhone 4 cases in stock, but not a single iPhone 4 slider case on the shelves. The stores did have stocks of iPhone 3 slider cases. The iPhone 3 has a plastic back.
Incase and Sena Cases, two other popular case makers that sell through the Apple store, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Kensington, which also sells a popular slide-on battery case through the Apple store, declined to comment.