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Game time: How the iPhone 5 sent one case maker scrambling

At Incase, a major iPhone case maker, all the preparation in the world can't replace actual details on the new device. CNET sat in on the company as the iPhone 5 was unveiled.

A hat meant to celebrate the unveiling of the new iPhone 5 at the San Francisco headquarters of Incase. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--As Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage for his company's iPhone 5 media event yesterday, a group of hard-core Apple users a block away settled in to find out exactly what the new device had to offer.

With no less than nine Macs and eight iPhones in evidence, these ten people could easily be mistaken for a standard bunch of fanboys (and girls) eager to get their first official information about the iPhone 5. But they were hardly a normal group. This was much of the brain trust at Incase, one of the world's largest makers of cases for Apple products -- including iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Macs. Yet just like almost everybody else, they were in the dark about Apple's official plans until the moment Cook began to speak.

While a few app developers, such as CNN, got early access to the iPhone 5, the same wasn't true for case makers. And though the many rumors about the new device turned out to be more or less spot on, a company like Incase can't afford to base its design decisions on speculation. "We don't put stock in any particular rumor," CEO David Gatto said. "If we see that a sphere of rumors converge on a particular point of view, that convergence itself could be informative. But you still never know...That's part of the excitement. It could be something completely new and different."

'Game time'
Like every other iPhone case maker, the Incase team's mission was clear: Find out as much information as possible about the new device, especially its all-new form factor, and get cracking on turning out product for the iPhone 5. For months, the company had been ramping up for this -- designing prototypes of a series of would-be iPhone 5 cases, albeit in an iPhone 4 form factor, developing a marketing plan, getting its manufacturing operations in China ready to jump into action, and more. But with no disclosure from Apple, they couldn't really get going until Wednesday's big event.

See CNET's full coverage of Apple's iPhone 5 event

"It's game time," shouted Jing Liu, Incase's iPhone product manager, as Cook began his presentation. Wearing a party hat festooned with the iPhone event's date, "09 12 12," Liu joked, "It's my big day."

As details of the new device rolled by in the live blogs the team was monitoring -- they didn't have anyone at the event, and there was no video stream available -- team members repeated them, almost as if to assure themselves that they were real. "The volume button looks far apart," one said. "It's lighter," said another. "Seven point six [millimeters], there we go," said Gatto of the iPhone 5's thickness.

Jing Liu, Incase's iPhone product manager, wears a hat celebrating the release of the iPhone 5. Daniel Terdman/CNET

Incase got its start working with Apple on the first iPod and has been designing for the company's devices ever since. It doesn't make cases for any other device manufacturer and it proudly touts the fact that it sells products in more categories in Apple's retail stores than any of its competitors.

Given that, Incase has decided that its marketing message for the iPhone 5 launch will be "Form follows form. Since day one," a reference to the cases it has made for Apple's mega-hit phone since the beginning.

Now, gathered in one of the company's conference rooms at its headquarters in San Francisco, the team was taking in the details coming in from the nearby launch event and trying to figure out how they would impact the cases they'll be making for the iPhone 5. "There's the connector and speakers," someone said. "Where's the headphone" jack? "Is it two speakers in the bottom instead of one microphone," asks iPad and MacBook product manager Tim Ahn.

For the design team, the key things to consider were how to ensure that the cases don't affect the way the iPhone 5's camera and flash work, and that users are able to access all of the device's ports. At the same time, they needed to be sure that Apple's new EarPod headphones, as well as Incase's own headphones, and that of third-party manufacturers, fit properly. And, the cases need to stylishly accommodate Apple's new Lightning 9-pin connector, a significant change from the 30-pin connector every iPhone, iPad, and iPod dating back to 2002 has used.

The idea for Incase is to get as much data on the iPhone 5 as possible and then spring into action. A big part of that was finding out the specs for the new device so that the design and manufacturing teams could adapt the prototypes they'd crafted. "We'll take all those style concepts that we vetted on the [iPhone] 4 and change the CAD designs to...fit the [iPhone] 5 from the information we know today," Gatto said. "And then that information will b used to change the tools to create a product that's sized for the 5. And that can take weeks."

Early October
Over the next 24 hours, Gatto explained, his people in San Francisco and China would be working nearly non-stop to come up with a realistic assessment of when Incase could deliver its first iPhone 5 cases.

As the day wore on, other case makers began to issue press releases promoting their own iPhone 5 products. But none seemed willing to say when those items would go on sale. Incase's plan was to be more forthcoming.

Although it was still unclear exactly how long it would take, the company's marketing team was preparing to put up a new home page and issue a press release saying they'd have the first cases available to the public on October 1, a combination of its Slider, Snap, and Sports Armband models. Gatto allowed that that time frame was "aggressive" but seemed confident it was possible. There was even some talk of having product available prior to the date, and a question of what to do then. The answer seemed to be to just ship early.

But by mid-afternoon, Gatto was questioning the decision. Sitting down to read a draft of the press release around 3 p.m., he issued a new command: Instead of promising an October 1 release, Incase would simply say the new cases would come out in "early October." "I just want to be more comfortable in the turnaround time in China on the prototypes," Gatto explained, "based on everything we learned, and I just feel we may hit, and we may not, and I don't know that we'll know for about 24 hours."

Of course, Incase couldn't wait 24 hours to put make its announcements. It had to move as fast as it could. And that's why he wanted to preserve some wiggle room on the shipping date; the company could get more specific later.

For now, though, the date language had to be changed on Incase's Web site, and in the draft of the press release that was being readied. And so it was. Except for one small mistake.

Sometime after 4:30 p.m., Incase's Web site went live with its "Form follows form" iPhone 5 campaign. On an internal page, the company promised to ship the new cases in early October. But on the front page, it still said "Shipping October 1st."

When Incase's Web site touting its iPhone 5 cases went live Wednesday, it mistakenly referred to an October 1 ship date. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For Apple
While Incase was readying one set of new cases to sell direct to the public, it was working on a different set that it would soon be pitching directly to Apple. The idea was to come up with just the right combination of its various offerings for Apple to pick to stock in its retail stores.

Because Incase had no idea what Apple would want, it came up with four scenarios -- each a slightly different mix of its signature models. Given its longstanding relationship with the iPhone maker, it seemed likely that one scenario would be chosen.

A set of prototype iPhone 5 cases -- done in iPhone 4 form factor -- that Incase plans to present to Apple for possible inclusion in the tech giant's retail stores. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But there is no way to know, of course, and for Incase, getting valuable real estate for its iPhone 5 cases in Apple Stores is a big part of its business plan. And it has to wait for a chance to pitch the scenarios. "We'll have a lot more information [about prototype production] each and every day this week," Gatto said. "Then [we] present those ideal scenarios to Apple when they're ready to have that conversation. I'm not sure when that will be...It's up to Apple to decide what that assortment will be and whe they want to bring that into the store. We could be ready in early October. They may not be ready."

The real surprise
Heading into the iPhone announcement, the Incase team had seemed ready to be surprised by the details of the actual device. But thanks to the flood of rumors over the preceding months, there wasn't much that was revealed that hadn't already been reported on.

What caught the team by surprise, though, was the design of the new iPod Touch. With a camera that extrudes slightly from the body of the device and, more dramatically, a slot for an attachable wrist strap, the new iPod represented a much bigger challenge.

A drawing that attempts to solve the problem of how to connect the new iPod Touch wrist strap to an Incase case. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Indeed, as the Apple event proceeded, the Incase team spent much more time trying to figure out how they'd build a case around the iPod's camera and loop slot than they did for the iPhone 5. Most were excited by the challenge, and jumped enthusiastically into trying to solve it, but one questioned the design choice by Apple, flashing thumbs-down during the announcement.

The competition
Before Apple even started its iPhone 5 event Wednesday morning, some case makers were already promoting their offerings for the new device. But of course, those companies weren't actually ready to sell their wares. Instead, they had most likely mocked up models based on rumors and were preparing to take orders. They'd leave the small matter of actually designing their new products until after the official iPhone unveiling.

That kind of thinking doesn't fly at Incase -- or many of its bigger competitors, for that matter. And in fact, Gatto relished that differentiation. "There will be a lot of product out in the next 30 to 45 days," he said, "that will not be the quality Incase would put out."

But more to the point, he didn't seem to mind being beat to the punch when it came to offering iPhone 5 cases, just so long as his competitors didn't get advance looks at the device's actual specs. "As long as no one does," he said. "We're the best, so it's OK."