Analysis: iPhone accessory opportunities abound

The iPhone may be three devices in one, as Steve Jobs famously declared when unveiling the mobile phone at this January’s Macworld Expo. But even with the ability to make phone calls, play music, and surf the Internet, the iPhone still won’t be able to do everything when it arrives on June 29. But take heart—whatever missing capabilities and features there are figure to be addressed by accessory makers, who are doubtlessly chomping at the bit to start churning out iPhone paraphernalia.

For proof, look no further than the iPod. In the five and a half years since its introduction, the iconic music player has become an industry unto itself, with developers churning out everything from Hello Kitty cases to a toilet paper holder/speaker system combination that work with the iPod. The iPod add-on phenomena has generated its own name—the “iPod ecosystem”—with Apple chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer telling an investor conference earlier this year that there are some 3,000 products built with the iPod in mind. The New York Times reported in 2006 that for every $3 spent on an iPod, consumers spend $1 on an accessory.

It may be asking a lot to expect a repeat performance from the iPhone. Apple sold its 100 millionth iPod this year—in the last 18 months alone, the company has sold 71 million iPods. In contrast, over the next 18 months, Apple says it would be happy to sell 10 million iPhones. Still, there’s no denying the phone poses a new opportunity for makers of cases, headphones, and other add-ons.

“It’s a robust platform for accessories to tap into,” said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for market-research firm NPD Group. “Based on the success that companies like Griffin, DLO, Belkin and others have had with iPod accessories, expect very good support for the iPhone.”

Indeed, vendors have begun to announce iPhone-compatible products already. In addition, similarities between the iPhone’s ports and those on the iPod raise the possibility that existing accessories might be compatible with the mobile phone. And that’s before even diving into the realm of accessories that could exist once the iPhone hits the streets, based upon what’s known publicly about Apple’s latest mobile device.

The first-party developer

But the company with the inside track on getting iPhone accessories out the door may be the maker of the iPhone itself. After all, until next Friday, Apple is the only company that knows with any certainty what will and won’t work with the iPhone. Plus, it does have the advantage of being able to guarantee 100-percent compatibility with the iPhone right out of the gate.

To that end, Apple has already announced a pair of iPhone accessories, previewed by Jobs during his Macworld Expo keynote. One of those offerings will be the phone’s included wired stereo headphones. Though they may at first glance look identical to the iPod’s standard earbuds, these headphones conceal a secret: an integrated microphone that lets you make and receive phone calls. A squeezable control on the cord lets you answer or hang up calls; the iPhone pauses or restarts your music as necessary, allowing you to switch seamlessly between the phone and iPod functions of the iPhone.

Apple’s other iPhone offering is a minimalist Bluetooth headset for taking and making phone calls; when not active, the headset goes to sleep to preserve battery life. As befits Apple’s current design aesthetic, the device shown during the Expo keynote was extremely spartan, with one button on the top that answers or hangs up a call.

Jobs didn’t mention whether Apple’s Bluetooth headset would let users listen to music—as it’s not a stereo device, the likelihood is that it won’t. Apple hasn’t disclosed pricing for its headset, but comparable models run anywhere from $25 to $100 depending on features.

Available right away

Third-party vendors may not be able to promise total compatibility with the iPhone at this early date, but what they lack in guarantees, they more than make up for in the breadth of products offered. A number of companies have already released some information on forthcoming iPhone products, but this list is by no means exhaustive; as the June 29 release date draws closer, expect to see many more offerings appear.

At the moment, most of what’s been announced falls into what is likely the most common category of accessories: cases. And that’s understandable—the iPhone’s 4.5-by-2.4-by-0.46-inch dimensions have been know for some time now.

When it comes to the iPhone, you can expect to see many of the same types of cases that are available for the iPod. With the iPhone, however, there’s a complication—the device’s Multi-Touch interface requires users to be able to make skin contact with the touchscreen.

iPod case maker ezGear has already announced three cases for the iPhone: the ezSkin, the ezSkin Edge, and the ezSkin Max. Each uses a transparent film to cover the iPhone's front and back and keep it scratch-free, and heavier silicone bumpers on the sides and corners, to protect it from drops. The three cases also include a flap to cover the iPhone’s dock-connector port and a holster that clips onto a belt for quick access.

Marware’s QuickVue hardshell case

Marware has its own line of cases in the offing. The $30 QuickVue is a rubberized hardshell that users can quickly flip open to access the iPhone; the CEO Elite is a leather and nylon case, complete with belt clip and a plush interior that keeps the iPhone nestled safely away. The $15 SportGrip for iPhone is a high-grade no-slip silicone skin with built in side ridges for easy gripping. There’s also a pair of rubberized holster cases with integrated cord winding mechanisms: the Sidewinder ($25) and the Sport Grip Backwinder ($25). Both the Sidewinder and the Backwinder also have belt clips based on Marware’s Multidapt system, suggesting that once people get ahold of an iPhone, they’re not going to let it out of their sight.

Not to be left out, Griffin Technology is also working on a handful of cases. The Elan Holster is, as its name suggests, a leather holster that clips onto a belt; the Elan Snap-In is a molded case that features a swivel clip on the back; and the Elan Sleeve is a leather sleeve with a belt clip. Griffin has adapted its iClear line of transparent polycarbonate iPod cases to make a model for the iPhone as well. It also developed an armband called the Streamline . Besides cases, Griffin has developed an iPhone version of its $20 PowerJolt car power adapter, which it says will be available anywhere the iPhone is sold once the phone ships.

Griffin Technology’s Streamline armband

Like Griffin, other accessory makers aren’t satisfied with simply offering cases. For example, DreamGear is expanding its i.Sound line with the forthcoming RoadTalk Pro. It combines the functions of an FM transmitter (the devices that let you listen to your iPod’s audio through your car's speaker system) with a handsfree car kit. The RoadTalk Pro, which communicates with phones via Bluetooth, has an integrated microphone that lets you carry on conversations without taking your hands off the wheel. It’s priced at $95 and slated for an end-of-July release.

Meanwhile, V-Moda is prepping the $100 Vibe Duo, a set of wired earphones based on the company’s highly-regarded Vibe canalbuds. The Duo adds a microphone into the headphone cable, allowing users to use the Duo for both listening to music and handling phone calls.

XtremeMac plans to ship a bunch of power accessories for the iPhone: the $30 InCharge, a compact AC adapter with a detachable cable for charging the iPhone from a computer; the $20 InCharge Auto for charging an iPhone or iPod from any car with a standard 12V power outlet; and the $40 InCharge Travel for airline and automobile outlets.

Aliph’s Jawbone Bluetooth Headset

Earlier this week, Aliph announced that its $120 Jawbone Bluetooth Headset will go on sale alongside the iPhone at 157 Apple retail stores next Friday.

What about iPod gadgets?

If you’ve got an iPod, chances are you’ve already sunk some cash into the wide variety of existing iPod accessories on the market. As you ponder whether or not to purchase an iPhone, one factor may be whether or not your current iPod add-ons will work with it.

Unfortunately, the answer right prior to the iPhone’s release appears to be “reply hazy, ask again.” Like its mobile-music-playing brethren, the iPhone includes a 3.5mm headphone jack and a 30-pin dock-connector port. As the headphone jack is standard, it’s likely that add-ons that rely on the audio output from that port will work fine, so you probably won’t need to trade in your headphones (unless you want one that has a microphone as well).

The dock-connector technology is somewhat more of a question-mark. While the fact that Steve Jobs has referred to the iPhone's port as a “30-pin iPod connector” bodes well for existing iPod accessories, there are undoubtedly a few add-ons that will need significant updates (voice recorders, for example, which depend on a built-in capability of the iPod’s firmware ).

It’s possible—though still uncertain—that Apple might provide a Universal Dock Adapter for the iPhone. The phone is the same width as the iPod and just 0.03 inches thicker than the 30GB fifth-generation music player. A Universal Dock Adapter would allow the iPhone to be used with all the speaker systems and accessories that rely on dock adapters, such as Apple’s own iPod Hi-Fi. But it’s also possible that these devices will need to be updated and revised in order to be iPhone-compatible anyway; we’re unlikely to know more until the iPhone is available.

What comes next?

Nevertheless, what is known about the iPhone at this point points to a number of directions that accessory makers could follow with future offerings. The inclusion of Bluetooth, for example, potentially opens up a huge market of cell phone accessories, especially for wireless headsets like the aforementioned Jawbone and products from Jabra, Sony, and Motorola.

Wireless headsets for making and taking calls are great, but why not bring the same convenience to music and videos? The ingredients would seem to be there: the iPhone reputedly has the same Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR standard found across the Mac line, but there’s no word about whether the phone will take advantage of Bluetooth’s Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP)—a protocol that facilitates the streaming of high-quality audio, like music. For example, iSkin’s Cerulean F1 stereo headphones use the A2DP protocol for music (when paired with a transmitter that plugs into the iPod’s dock-connector port) and also double as a Bluetooth headset for handling phone calls. While the headset functionality should work with the iPhone, iSkin could not give a definite answer on whether or not the music capability would work with the iPhone’s built-in Bluetooth. To ship a media player with Bluetooth built-in that cannot stream music wirelessly seems unlikely, but Apple follows its own path.

Another course for accessory makers will be to take advantage of what the iPhone doesn’t offer. For instance, one criticism leveled at the phone is the apparent inability for users to replace the internal battery. Many cell phone users are accustomed to packing a spare battery to swap in when the first one dies, something that doesn’t appear to be possible with the iPhone. While losing your music or your mobile Internet is an inconvenience, having your cell phone run out juice is potentially far worse, especially in emergency situations. Expect to see a market for supplemental power devices for the iPhone, similar to the one that’s sprung up for the iPod.

Another potential area for third-party intervention stems from the iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard. Smartphone users have become accustomed to having a physical QWERTY keyboard, and the iPhone is certainly a departure from that. But even smartphone users are sometimes dissatisfied with the text input on their beloved devices. That’s why, for example, Palm recently took the somewhat odd step of releasing a “mobile companion” device, the Foleo. The Foleo talks to your smartphone via Bluetooth, but provides you with a full size keyboard and 10-inch screen. Palm has said that it would be interested in making the Foleo work with smartphones from other vendors, Apple included. Whether Apple shares that interest remains to be seen.

There are still plenty of questions about the iPhone to be answered—not the least of which is, just how many people will end up buying the device. Then again, that same question was asked about the iPod back in 2001. Accessory makers are unlikely to wait until that question gets fully answered this time around.

[ Associate editor Dan Moren is also co-editor of the MacUser blog. ]

This article was updated on Monday, June 25, to correct information about V-Moda’s Vibe Duo earphones.

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