While there are many reasons we have never featured iPod cases in an edition of iDesign, they boil down to one thing: case designs are rarely original, and almost never inspirational. What company has designed cases so unique that competitors couldn’t resist the temptation to just copy them?
If you look back far enough in iPod history, there’s actually an answer to that question. Back in September 2002, an iLounge contributing editor described his delight at discovering something new: “a case. Not a purse, pouch, or geeky PDA-like bag that covers the iPod’s beauty, but rather a jacket that protects its delicate surface while preserving its elegant design and stylish looks.” This case was notable because it was the first to be made from precision-formed clear silicone rubber that matched the look of the iPod. And it sparked a revolution. Today, there are thousands of iPod cases, and literally hundreds of them are based on this original design.
Although the vast majority of these cases are made in China, they owe a substantial debt to two Japanese businesses that you mightn’t know by name. The more familiar is Power Support, a Tokyo company that for years has been making and distributing iPod and Mac accessories, most recently reselling its products through Los Angeles-area subsidiary Power Support USA. But equally important to this story is Power Support’s partner, Kyoto-based Miyavix, which has developed some of the iPod’s most famous cases, including the one that begins our story today. Together, Power Support and Miyavix have literally defined and helped to redefine the iPod case industry, while having an equally important impact on clear film protectors: these items, once improvised and cobbled together by iPod owners, are now ubiquitous. Our fourth edition of iDesign explores the original designs of Power Support and Miyavix, as well as the importance of partnerships. Enjoy.
To Groove, to Jam, to Rubberize
As unfortunate of a starting point as it may initially appear to be, one of the informal criteria we consider when choosing a subject for iDesign is the extent to which a given product has been cloned by others. By that measure, it’s quite possible that no company we’ve featured has been copied more than Power Support and Miyavix, which have seen virtually every one of their innovative case designs knocked off by other companies—even including some of the industry’s best-known developers.
The two cases you see above are, in a word, original: they are the direct descendants of the first silicone rubber case ever made for an iPod, which was known alternately as Silicone Jacket or Groove Jacket. Pictures don’t do justice to what these cases are, and are not; they are made from surgical grade Japanese silicone, rather than cheaper, slimier alternatives, and they are so precisely tailored to each iPod’s curves that tiny outlines and indentations in the rubber line up exactly with points on each iPod. They are clear frosted in color, letting the iPod’s body colors shine through, and they have curves that in no way detract from the iPod’s. We have seen a dozen incarnations of these Silicone Jackets, and to the one, they’ve been perfectly manufactured, with clean edges and shapes that most competitors are unable to match. In short, they are not flashy, but each one is exactly as it is supposed to be: neutral. Five years after their introduction, they remain amongst the most popular iPod cases in Japan.
This case—Miyavix’s original Groove Jacket—is where it all began. Unlike the sequels that would follow for later iPods, the original design used elevated ridges of molded rubber that surrounded the first- and second-generation iPod’s screen and Scroll Wheel, accenting the iPod’s body rather than presenting it neutrally. It was later explained that the iPod Silicone Jacket had been inspired by ones created for Canon’s pocket digital cameras; the company soon dropped the more complex but attractive elevated circles and round rectangles from the iPod cases.
By the time the third-generation iPod was released, Groove Jacket was officially called Silicone Jacket, and something major had changed behind the scenes: after apparent problems with resellers and clones, Power Support took over as the product’s sole vendor. Understanding the appeal of a rubber, custom-fit iPod case back in mid-2002, other companies had mercilessly cloned the original Groove Jacket, releasing nearly identical products under slightly different names—a company called Netalog, for instance, began to sell a blue-colored “Aqua Jam Jacket,” earning an angry letter from Miyavix and Power Support, while a tiny company called ackNOWLEDGE produced its own version in different colors. These companies eventually became DLO and iSkin, well-known makers of numerous cases and other iPod accessories, and differentiated their products from Power Support’s, but some damage was done: a massive wave of rubber case cloning began, with North American companies and their China-based manufacturing partners fighting over designs, quality, and pricing. Somewhat controversially, Power Support decided to maintain complete control over its manufacturing within Japan, leading to higher prices, but also, the company claimed, superior quality and less potential for theft by “partners.” And, while major competitors were creating increasingly complex rubber designs, it redoubled its commitment to cleaner, simpler cases.
Simplicity didn’t require the Silicone Jackets to be boring. One of the most interesting iPod cases ever released was Power Support’s Square Type Silicone Jacket, which originally appeared on the iPod mini before re-appearing on the second-generation iPod nano. It posed and answered a simple question: what would the iPod look like if it was boxy, rather than curved? The answer: a colorful ice cube. And equally cool.
For the most part, however, Power Support’s Silicone Jackets remained extremely conservative, continuing from the third-generation iPod through every successive model to offer a design that matched the iPod rather than obscuring it. Consequently, they blended in rather than standing out. By the time of the fourth- and fifth-generation iPods’ release, there were numerous rubber case alternatives with no direct tie to the cloning that had taken place in 2002 and 2003, each one with some little thing—maybe 10 little things—that made it aesthetically different from Power Support’s offerings. Some, like the red iFrogz case below, were substantially dissimilar in generally positive ways, while many others, like JAVOedge’s black offering, were cheaper and more poorly-designed.
From Left: Silicone Jacket for iPod classic, iFrogz’ Wrapz for iPod classic
From Left: Silicone Jacket for iPod classic, JAVOedge’s JAVOSkin Case
Chinese companies rushed to be first to market with cases for new iPods; Power Support, for better or worse, took its time. The critical differences between their offerings remained the same over the years: design, quality, and pricing. But another factor—the scope of protection—also became important, and here, Power Support innovated in an important way.
Harder: From Rubber to Tight-Tolerance Plastic Shells and Film
Rubber had obvious benefits: it was relatively inexpensive, easy to mold, and forgiving even if it wasn’t formed to precisely fit an iPod’s curves. But it wasn’t completely clear, and didn’t necessarily offer much anti-drop protection. So, as an alternative to the Silicone Jacket—perhaps inspired by Contour Design’s early iSee—Power Support began to offer the Crystal Jacket: a completely clear hard plastic shell that had been molded with the same impressive attention to detail as its earlier rubber cases. Classically Japanese touches in the rear shell made the case distinctive without adding goofy branding, while the front shell let you see the iPod’s entire face without any interference. If you wanted a better view of the iPod than the frosted clear Silicone Jacket, you’d love how Crystal Jacket showed it off.
The design, fairly consistent from iPod to iPod, saw a major overhaul with the recent release of the iPod touch. Power Support added an integrated video stand and offered the case in a new color—smoke black—which had the additional benefit of hiding the touch’s odd little black rear antenna cover.
As nice as the standard Crystal Jackets may have been, however, they weren’t necessarily innovative designs. That changed in 2005. Unexpectedly, the company evolved the product into a new form: the Japanese office called it the Crystal Jacket Mirror Type, while the company’s American office chose a different name—Illusion Case.
Illusion was a really smart idea. At a time when users were having fun using the mirrored rear shells of iPods, Illusion combined the protectiveness of the standard Crystal Jacket with a unique mirrored material that made nearly the entire iPod appear to be reflective when its screen was turned off, but let the screen peek through when it was turned on. Originally, Illusion was offered only in a silver version, but the company later released a gold alternative. Both were cool extensions of the iPod’s original design at a time when cases were ranging from crazy to boring.
Unfortunately, as with the Silicone Jacket, Illusion wasn’t to remain a Power Support exclusive design for long. Griffin Technology, generally noted for its innovative product designs, knocked off the Illusion Case with its own alternative called Reflect. The clones for 5G iPods and second-generation nanos looked basically identical to Power Support’s originals, leading us to take the unusual step of refusing to preview or review the products. Then Griffin released updated, different looking versions for iPod classics, nanos, and touches, as well as the iPhone—products Power Support hadn’t developed, some in interesting, luminescent colors. Though derivative, the new Reflect cases demonstrated again how Power Support’s designs inspire others; separate companies have subsequently taken different approaches to mirror-coating Apple products.
External forces, including competition, have also inspired changes within Power Support. Though the company has been doggedly committed to neutral, simple product designs, it has evolved its packaging considerably to make its offerings more appealing on store shelves. Early, mechanical engineer-inspired white paper and clear plastic packages gave way to sharp black and silver ones, and later, even nicer boxes that are two-toned green in the United States, and blue in Japan.
What was in the packages also evolved in small but not trivial ways. Power Support was the first company to solve a problem that has continued to vex competitors to this day, creating film protectors that not only covered the touch-sensitive surface of the iPod Click Wheel, but also the central Action button—a part that is routinely left exposed because other companies can’t mold their film properly to deal with Apple’s controls. These protectors, known as 3-D Wheel Film, eventually became a key part of $15 Crystal Film Sets that have sold in staggering numbers to iPod and iPhone fans.
Simple though they may seem, Power Support’s film protectors have come a long way from their earliest roots several years ago, setting the standard for precision-cut iPod screen and control protection; the company’s decision to include film with its cases has spurred other companies to do the same, improving the level of protection iPod and iPhone owners have come to expect when making a purchase. Take a moment and consider just how much of a positive impact a relatively small Japanese company can have upon iPod cases sold throughout the entire world. Then realize that throughout the evolution of its products, Power Support has remained resolutely Japanese in everything from its thinking to its packaging, proudly touting Japanese iconography and Made in Japan logos, despite many opportunities to go in different directions. This sense of cultural pride has mostly helped, and only occasionally hindered the company.
The Kimono From Kyoto
The Kimono Case is one of the most notable examples of how Power Support’s Japanese heritage helped the company view the potential of iPod accessories from an angle that competitors hadn’t considered. Again in partnership with Miyavix, the company shocked observers in 2005 by introducing something that was, at the time, a completely different take on fabric iPod protection. Keiko Napier, who runs Power Support’s American office, had lamented the lack of female-friendly case designs at a time when iPod minis were proving that Apple’s inventions weren’t just toys for boys. Fashionable iPod cases, she said back then, were rarely tailored to let people actually use the iPods without opening a flap or removing them from a pouch; they were also expensive. Why couldn’t there be something chic, iPod user friendly, and affordable?
Developed in Kyoto, Japan—the country’s ancient cultural capital—the Kimono Case broke with fabric case traditions by offering a “play-through” design, one that used stitched-in black leather to provide properly shaped holes for the iPod’s screen and Click Wheel, while authentic Japanese fabrics were used to cover the rest of the iPod’s body. The iPod mini and fourth-generation iPod each initially received three subtle floral patterns, one predominately blue, another red, and another yellow, with the colors changing after a season or two on the market.
Amazingly, the Kimono Case was even a hit outside of Japan, in countries where its design and patterns weren’t necessarily familiar to potential customers. Like the later Illusion Case, Kimono was a breath of fresh air at a time when conventional fabric iPod cases had become predictable, and saw its shape and features repeated as the fourth-generation iPod and mini evolved to become the fifth-generation iPod and nano. Even the iPod shuffle got a version, distinctive because of its colored tassel, though controlling the shuffle’s Control Pad was an issue with the diminutive design. And, of course, cloners eventually came along as well, releasing similar play-through fabric cases with cheaper-looking Chinese materials instead of the understated but beautiful Japanese cloth. Unlike the Silicone and Crystal Jackets, however, the Kimono knock-offs came only from smaller companies and never gained much traction, remaining mere curiosities relative to the Miyavix originals.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Kimono design hasn’t made its way to the third-generation iPod nano or second-generation nano yet, say nothing of the iPhone; part of the reason might be that shifts in iPod designs have made subsequent Kimono releases more difficult. A vaguely similar PDA-style design has been shown by Miyavix, but not brought to the United States; it remains to be seen whether the true play-through Kimono Case will make a return, or whether, like many companies’ fashion cases, it’s been retired from the catwalk after a successful international run.
What’s Next: Metal MacBook Bags and iPod Cases?
Over the past six years, Power Support has tackled rubber, plastic, and fabric as iPod case materials, but it has never made a case from metal—something its designers have reserved for use in heavy, substantial car and desktop accessories for Macs and iPods. Now, through another partnership, that may change.
In January, Power Support’s American arm announced that it was working with a small, Los Angeles-area design house on a new series of cases made from metal mesh, a material we’ve never before seen in an iPod case. Like the Kimono, it’s obvious that these cases are designed to appeal to women, but the more our male editors looked at the accented silver designs, the more they liked them, as well. While comparatively impractical relative to the Kimono Cases—the mock-ups shown by Power Support had top latches to let you slide your iPod in or out for screen and control access, rather than a play-through design—they’re undeniably cool in person, and unique enough to impress users as a high-end luxury gift. The real application, Power Support suggested, was in a proposed series of MacBook carrying cases, which would be designed to fit the new MacBook Air and one or two other thin items. These minimalist metal bags, like the iPod cases, would also vary from single-colored to include colored accent pieces.
Whether or not these cases and bags join Power Support’s lineup, they add further evidence that the company—through smart partnerships with innovative designers—has the ability to redefine user expectations of what even commodity products such as cases and bags should be. It is extremely easy these days to release an iPod case, but it’s extremely difficult to make one that combines an original design with superb manufacturing quality and reasonable pricing. To have one such product is unusual, but Miyavix and Power Support have had many, and though they have suffered from continued attempts to knock off their designs, they have repeatedly succeeded in introducing original, cool products that iPod and iPhone lovers can enjoy. We look forward to seeing whatever they come up with next.