Here’s one of Apple’s surprising little secrets: despite the company’s official position that every upcoming product must be shrouded in mystery until it’s officially unveiled on stage (or, rarely, in a press release), Apple’s retail arm has a somewhat different agenda. Since new hardware releases inevitably lead to sales of new—and highly profitable—accessories to customers who already have their wallets open, Apple Stores don’t just look the other way when third-party accessories are available on a new iPad’s, iPhone’s, or iPod’s launch day; they actually encourage this. But how can a company design accessories for a product it hasn’t seen, and reliably get products into Apple Stores in time for each new launch, particularly when the gap between unveiling and release is commonly only one to three days?
The answer: third-party developers almost always get early access to new iPod, iPhone, and iPad designs, a fact that Apple simultaneously wags its finger at and profits handsomely from. Specifics as to how this early access actually works are sort of fuzzy. Some companies think that Apple deliberately leaks early, accurate dimensional details to get the case wheels rolling ahead of a new product release, and some day-of-release accessories show tell-tale signs of direct Apple involvement. Others believe that the leaks come purely from people affiliated with manufacturing partners such as Foxconn who sneak peeks at Apple’s production lines, measuring or selling parts—often metal or plastic shells, now sometimes pieces of glass—for profit. Under either scenario, Apple profits from selling millions of dollars worth of accessories, and having third-party options clearly helps: if Apple’s Bumpers were the only available solution to the iPhone 4’s antenna problems, the limited supplies and choices would have made for even worse press at a very bad time.
Yet there are also people who believe that Apple deliberately seeds inaccurate information, in the form of fake parts or bogus diagrams, in order to burn some early starters. Under this theory, Apple feeds different pieces of bad information to various partners and then looks to see which ones wind up in public. Cases made from inaccurate information may turn out to be a little too small, a little too big, or have holes in the wrong spots. A single mistake can cost manufacturers tens of thousands of dollars in discarded molds and finished but ill-fitting accessories. Occasionally, they’ll wind up on sale, regardless: the clear shell above was obviously based on early iPad dimensional drawings suggesting that a second Dock Connector was in the offing. Ill-fitting early iPhone 3G cases also made their way into the marketplace before being quietly replaced by “revved” successors.
Right now, the second-generation iPad is nearing release, but in a twist, the pre-release case designs are showing substantial variations. All of the versions agree on a redesigned rear shell that will be even closer in shape to the lid of a MacBook (or the rear of an iPod touch) than the current iPad. They also suggest headphone port, Sleep/Wake Button, Dock Connector, Lock/Ringer Switch and volume control positions that are basically the same as one another, and very similar to the first iPad’s.
But from there, there are differences. Most suggest that the speaker grilles of the first iPad will either grow to accommodate more powerful drivers, or that a panel will be added above the grilles for SD card insertion. Other versions are showing SD card-sized holes in other places, and most recently, some have popped up with something the size of a Mini DisplayPort video connector or mini-USB port near the iPad’s top. Predictably, there have been reports that all of these features will wind up in the new iPad. But they probably won’t. Just as was the case with the last iPad, which really seriously seemed to have twin Dock Connectors until it was unveiled, it’s hard to imagine the sides of the iPad becoming Frankensteinish mishmashes of ports and slots. Lots of people would love the iPad to become a true mini-computer. Apple clearly wants to keep it elegant.
Though it seems obvious to us that all three of the leak scenarios above are true at various points in time—that Apple has seeded accurate pre-release information to certain developers, that it has had factory leaks, and that it also sometimes puts out bad information to burn early starters—the number of supposed iPad 2 case variations suggests either multiple and substantially different iPads are about to be released, or that some fake shells are being circulated. The upshot of all this: don’t believe everything you see in these pre-release case images. Design is still king at Apple—form over function, some would say—and anything that looks too kludgy to be an Apple product probably is. Probably. We’ll see soon enough what has made the cut this year.