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An iPhone case Apple could have built

While the iPhone itself is a head turner, it regularly gets covered over by some of the world's ugliest cases. A surprising Kickstarter project leads to a new case that looks like it could have come from Apple.

The AL13 cases were first sold only to Kickstarter supporters but are now available to the public. Designed by M

Few mobile devices are in the same league with the iPhone 4 and 5 in terms of hardware design -- at least until the HTC One came along.

Of course, Apple has famously traded function for form at times. But from a purely aesthetic point of view, the real challenge for the iPhone is that its owners value the device so much they wrap it in hideously ugly cases to protect it.

The world's ugliest phone cases are used to protect the world's most beautiful mobile device (at least in my eyes). The evidence is in abundance from midtown Manhattan to your local grocery store. There are plastic ones, purple ones, rugged ones, flimsy ones, cartooned ones, bumper ones, and just-plain-ridiculous ones.

It's a crime against technology.

However, two Floridians have now crowdfunded a product to fix it. They designed a thin aluminum iPhone case that looks remarkably like something that could have come from Apple. In fact, this is the case Apple should have made.

Called the AL13, referring to the abbreviation for aluminum in the periodic table and the fact the case only weighs 13 grams, the product has the same brushed metal look as the iPhone 5. It's available in an iPhone 4/4S version or an iPhone 5version and comes in five colors: black, silver, red, blue, and gunmetal. It's half the weight of most other metal iPhone cases, doesn't require any tools to install, and has a shock-absorbing rubber lining inside the metal. The elevator pitch is that it "offers protection without altering the look of your iPhone 4 or 5."

Designed by M CEO Lester Mapp (left) and marketing director Jeremy Foster. Designed by M

A number of phone makers now design their own official cases for their signature devices, including Samsung for the Galaxy S series and Google for the Nexus 4 line. However, while Apple built the portfolio case for the original iPad and the smart cover for the more recent iPads, the company has barely made an effort to create an official case for the iPhone. Apple released its "Bumper" case with the iPhone 4, but it was overpriced and poorly made and was quietly discontinued with the iPhone 5. That has left the iPhone case market wide open for accessory makers, though unfortunately, most of them have done uninspiring work -- until now.

At the end of 2012, Lester Mapp and Jeremy Foster built a prototype of the iPhone case they always wanted and tossed it up on Kickstarter on December 28. They needed $20,000 to get the project off the ground, and they set a Kickstarter deadline of six weeks.

The product was almost an instant hit. On December 31, Foster posted an update on Kickstarter, writing, "WHATTTT!!! We are so incredibly excited about how the project has been received so far. We always knew AL13 was awesome - but we're so glad to see you all agree with us!"

It blew past $20,000 within 10 days. By the time the Kickstarter campaign ended on February 13, it had over 1,400 supporters and had raised $86,250.

"It was totally organic. That was the mind-blowing part," the 27-year-old Mapp told ZDNet. "When we hit goal, we were thrilled. But, at the same time, it was almost like a scary realization that it was real -- like you better do it and you better do it good."

Last week, they shipped the finished product to their Kickstarter supporters. Unlike 84 percent of the top projects on Kickstarter, it shipped on time.

With the Kickstarter run delivered, the AL13 is now on sale to the public via the company Web site, Designed by M. The "M" refers to Mapp since he designed the signature product. He's also the CEO, while Foster runs marketing, and they now have a team of seven to handle sales of the AL13 and to work on future projects.

In delivering the AL13 on time, Mapp credited the fact that they did a lot of planning and had manufacturing prepared before they started the Kickstarter campaign. They were ready to succeed. During the campaign and up until delivery, Mapp also communicated updates to Kickstarter supporters every step of the way.

"We were honest about exactly where we were in the process," Mapp said. "We had already spent our own money going through dozens of prototypes, and when we launched at Kickstarter all we needed was money for manufacturing."

The AL13 sells for $79. That's a premium above the $45 that it cost to get in the door at Kickstarter (although the limited-edition green AL13 was a $65 exclusive for Kickstarter supporters). Since most cases cost $10 to $20, many will balk at paying that much for. It is undoubtedly a premium product. But, for those who want the best case that money can buy to suit up with an iPhone, they'd be hard pressed to find a better alternative than the AL13.

For a full look at the AL13, see "Kickstarting the ultimate iPhone case: A photo story."

This story originally appeared as "The iPhone case Apple should have built: Now on sale" on ZDNet.