What I Learned By Talking to 201 iPhone Case Factories

It’s 2017 and making a quick buck through technology has never been easier. I could start mining ethereum; I could become a landlord overnight; I could even impersonate a bored computer to scrape together some pocket company.

Nah. I’d much rather get rich selling iPhone 8 cases in the absolutely burgeoning global smartphone accessory market.

In the high risk, high reward world of smartphone cases, those who gamble early on can win big if their designs hit the mark on release day. But they can also lose out, forced to chuck thousands of worthless, poorly-moulded cases into the trash when a phone’s design isn’t what was predicted by analysts and leakers.

With the latest leak of Apple’s next iPhone, presumably called the iPhone 8, could I stand to make ahandsome profit if I wagered a few thousand dollars on a bulk order of iPhone cases? They’d be ready to go on Apple’s regular launch day; I’d hit peak demand!

To find out, I emailed 201 smartphone accessory manufacturers based in China’s electronics heartland, Shenzen. Specifically, I asked how they know what the iPhone 8 will look like, how many cases they can make, and what their manufacturing process is.

Sustaining a huge global market takes some serious production, but I wasn’t expecting to find more than 350 separate case manufacturers—the figure provided to me by exporter marketplace globalsources.com. In reality, this is just a fraction of the thousands of accessory manufacturers based in the region.

I reached out to one manufacturer, and was quickly presented with the option to contact an additional 200 with one simple email. It was the greatest mail merge of my life.

My inbox. Image: Ben Sullivan

It took a little under two hours for the replies to start rolling in. At first, they came in dribs and drabs, but overnight, my inbox swelled. As it stands, I’ve received more than 150 replies regarding my interest in iPhone 8 cases. This was clearly a serious market, I thought, switching my iPhone 7 to silent.

It didn’t take too long before I saw my first, promising glimpses of riches that would soon adorn my bank balance by reselling iPhone 8 cases.

“iphone 8 we have launched, now can order and send the goods,” one manufacturer told me. “Short delivery time, about 2-15 days,” they said.

A promo shot of iPhone 8 cases sent to me by a manufacturer. Image: Ben Sullivan

I was shown a handful of catalogues that already had very detailed mock-ups of the iPhone 8 with cases on, including ‘anti-scratch hybrid’ cases and folio-style cases.

“We have friend who work in apple company so that we can get the date much earlier before the new iphone launch out,” another factory said to me. I inquired more, but they went silent.

A detailed iPhone 8 hybrid case diagram sent to me by a manufacturer. Image: Ben Sullivan

Then, while scrolling through the endless emails, I came across the jackpot.

“Glad to share with you our iPhone 8 cases are available. Guarantee: We will exchange 100% if data wrong after iPhone 8 launch,” an email said.

This particular factory had been running since 2007, and also now makes fidget spinners and phone armbands, the sales pitch explained. The company claims to ship more than ten million units per year, and also supplies parts for Chinese phone giants Huawei and ZTE.

I followed up, my interest piqued by the promise of an exchange if the iPhone 8 turns out to be shaped different than their designs.

“How much for 1,000 slim PU leather back iPhone 8 cases, all different colours,” I asked. “And how long for shipment and delivery? And can you guarantee exchange if iPhone 8 data wrong?”

This particular company’s catalogue was impressive, and the sales rep also provided me with a slideshow detailing more about the business. According to the rep, it has a 5,000 square meter workshop, with 100 workers and 30 machines that can churn out up to 50,000 phone cases per day.

A few minutes later:

With a price of $1.21 a piece at 1,000 units, I was looking down the barrel of $1,210 (or £950). I needed more assurance.

“May I ask where you received the iPhone 8 data for the cases from,” I replied, in turn.

“As you know, because we as a manufacturer, we have some own channels to get the data information. And we started to do from iPhone 4s, never appeared data wrong, so pls kindly rest assured. If the data wrong, we guarantee that we will exchange 100% if data wrong after iPhone 8 launch, thanks.”

The email came attached with added computer-generated images of the leather-backed iPhone 8 case I was after, alongside another model that had rubber coating.

Again, the images match the look of the iPhone 8 leaked earlier this month, with a vertical dual lens camera setup, unlike the horizontal orientation of the iPhone 7.

But then my inbox pinged again, this time from a manufacturer which said it had four physical phone accessory stores, two factories, and exports to Europe and the USA.

“Good questions, actually I don’t know much about technology though I am selling phone case,” the manufacturer told me. “For me, iPhone has been the same way, not much changed; especially in appearance, so I am waiting for a new design for iPhone 8.”

Could I really trust these other manufacturers if some openly admit to waiting for the iPhone 8 design?

I’m still deciding on whether to gamble. iPhone leaks in the past have been reliable, and OnLeaks does have a proven track record. But on the other hand, entire businesses have gone bust on one dodgy gamble. In 2011, case maker Hard Candy gambled on a teardrop-shaped iPhone 4s (which rumors at the time referred to as the iPhone 5) and lost tens of thousands on its first-to-market strategy.

But six years later we’re burdened with an Apple that seems to have run out of innovation; a company that’s scared to rock the boat. In 2016, the company’s one big change (the removal of the headphone jack) lauded both criticism and praise, but it didn’t redefine mobile computing. It’s looking highly likely the next Apple iPhone will not feature a radical redesign, either, and that OnLeaks is spot on: the iPhone 8 will look just like the iPhone 7. So is it worth a $1,000 gamble? Hmm. I’m going to go and ask our accounts department.

Motherboard staff will be exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along.