MIAMI -- For the companies that hang their profits on savvy cases for smartphones and tablets, staying ahead of the competition means betting millions of dollars on which mobile devices will be hot -- and which will flop.
Makers of accessories for mobile gadgets are in a fight for a piece of an industry that's expected to rake in $34 billion this year.
Some products, like cases, have a low barrier to entry: Come up with a design, have someone in China build it, and sell it at a street fair. The difficulty lies in standing out enough to make the investment worthwhile -- and knowing which phones are worth accessorizing.
"There are so many people flooding in here," said Michael Morgan, senior analyst of mobile devices at ABI Research. "The case market has exploded."
Among those angling for a share of the market is Sunrise, Fla.-based A. G. Findings and Manufacturing, or AGF, which makes protective cases for phones and tablets. Through partnerships with carriers, its office houses dozens of smartphone models that have yet to be released -- something most tech rumor bloggers would love to get their hands on. When today's big seller is outdated tomorrow, the team is in an eternal race to get product in stores before every major smartphone launch. Being late by just a few weeks can mean losing 70 percent of sales to a competitor.
A company like AGF has to find a niche, and it has: by throwing phones off buildings -- and having them land in one piece.
Its Ballistic brand, a bulky, multi-layered shock-resistant case, is what put AGF at an annual revenue today of $15 million -- a figure that represents doubled revenues each year for the past three years, it says. Its primary competition is OtterBox -- another maker of cases that can protect a phone from fatal drops, and which has a more recognized brand in more stores. Both have a price tag around $50, but AGF is selling it for less to retailers to scoop up more shelf space.
"We're willing to make less profit than they are," said Fernando Tages, AGF's chief operating officer. "Now that we've entered, I'm sure that they'll need to be competitive with us, and they'll need to drop their prices as well."
Tages said the Ballistic brand is currently in AT&T stores and should be in others such as Best Buy, RadioShack and Walmart by the end of the year.
Since its start in 1993, AGF's produce line has morphed with technology. Originally it made holsters and belt clips for beepers -- remember those? -- as well as generic leather sewn cases that fit multiple phone models. But today's flat, large-screen smartphones require far more engineering to get a perfect, snug fit.
Making a case takes eight to 12 weeks, and getting it out the same day as launch is a challenge when a company like Apple keeps phone details a secret until the last moment.
When AGF was given the shape of the rumored iPhone 4 from an unknown source, executives had to make a quick decision. Did Apple really make a boxy iPhone 4? Or could it be a decoy to fool the media? If they were to launch a case in time, they would need to trust the information.
"We said, 'We have to do it.' It could be a complete waste of money and time, and it probably would have sunk the company," Tages said -- but it turned out the measurements were valid. "That was a gut-wrenching three months for our company."
Not every gamble has worked. The flop of the Google Nexus line cost the firm a couple million dollars in unwanted inventory.
More than $5 billion likely will be spent on smartphone cases this year, Morgan said -- a 53 percent increase from last year. Consumers will spend an estimated $820 million on tablet cases -- most of that for Apple's iPad.
With the top-market smartphones priced around $200 and tablets starting at around $400, consumers see a bigger need to protect their large-screen investments from accidental drops -- and they can now do it in style.
"Before the iPhone, cases were made, big deal, so what," Morgan said. "After the iPhone, cases were pretty and everyone wants one."
(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.
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