Racing from idea to prototype at Macworld

Accessory maker Mophie solicited iPod case designs, picked three winners and produced samples by the end of the week. Images: The next great iPod accessory?

SAN FRANCISCO--There were plenty of companies on the show floor at Macworld pitching their latest iPod accessories. But one tiny Vermont company used its booth to try to get some new ideas.

Mophie, which makes a line of iPod cases, used a good chunk of its booth to solicit attendees' designs. The company got 150 ideas in about four hours at its booth. A quick round of online voting helped the company choose three finalists. By Friday, the last day of Macworld, the company had marketing pitches and rough, but working, implementations of all three finalists.

"These were just ideas on Tuesday," Mophie's director of operations, Tom Pasley, said Friday. "We made them into prototypes today."

Now the five-person company is looking to go to the next step and create actual shipable products.

The first idea is a case that holds Apple's diminutive iPod Shuffle and also has a built-in key ring. When the music player is removed, the case/key ring can also act as a bottle opener. Mophie has tentatively dubbed it Bevy and says it should be ready for the market by March. "Function is 'key,'" the company says in its preliminary marketing materials for Bevy.

A second idea, now called Schlep, is a durable wallet that holds credit cards, money and either the video iPod or the just announced iPhone. The company expects to have the iPod version ready in April and the iPhone one in time for the device's June launch.

The third product, called Montage, is a combination digital photo frame and iPod dock. The company hasn't set a release date for that one, which would be the company's first move into electronics.

The winners won't get a cut of the profits or other royalties, but will get credit on all of the product marketing materials, including retail packaging and signs. Mophie said winners also will get a "special gift" but the company hasn't said what that will be.

"The reward is truly the smug satisfaction of knowing you showed up, had a great idea and beat out hundreds of others to watch your product go into production," Mophie spokeswoman Ann Pechaver said in an e-mail.

As for where the contest idea came from, Pasley said the company gets calls and e-mails all the time from people who have ideas for the next killer iPod accessory

"We thought, let's give it a try in real time," he said.

More on the accessories scramble
There is always a race to be the first to accessorize the latest Apple gear. That means being nimble and, in some cases, trying to predict what Cupertino is up to.

At its booth at Macworld, accessory maker Speck was showing a case that pretty nearly matches up to Apple's iPhone.

It's not that Speck staffers had any inside information on what Steve Jobs and Co. were up to. But they read the rumor sites like everyone else, and it seemed a wide-screen iPod might be in the offing. So they mocked up a variant on its existing ToughSkin case and had it ready for display in the booth.

"Obviously they are not final designs," said Speck's marketing manager, Andrea Lim. But the company wanted to let folks know that their iPhone would not have to be naked for long. "It's $500," Lim said. "They are going to need some protection."

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