It's fair to say that Apple's new iPhone Smart Battery Case is not the most attractive product the company has ever released. Like every other charging case, it adds an extra inch of thickness to the bottom of the phone, making it hard to use headphones (including Apple's own Beats line) and the battery simply sticks out as a rectangular bulge. It's like Apple designed it so intensely they forgot to design it at all.
But there's another element at play here: the biggest name in battery cases is Mophie, and Mophie has tons of patents on the design and functionality of these things. Reading through a few, it's hard not to see Apple's case as being deliberately designed around Mophie's patents — including that unsightly bulge.
Here, for example, is Mophie patent #9,172,070, which was just granted on October 15th. The first claim lays out, well, a Mophie battery case — and any other case that has all of these (paraphrased) elements would infringe on Mophie's patent:
1. A lower case that contains a battery and sides that extend along a mobile device, with internal and external power connectors, and an on / off switch.
2. A removable upper case.
So really any case where a phone slides into the bottom case and there's a cap on top infringes this one. You will note the Apple case is just a single piece, with a top portion that flops back instead of coming off. More elegant, in some ways, but perhaps more importantly, also outside the claims of this patent. (There's also no on / off switch, but really, what Apple product has an on / off switch?)
And that's just one patent. Mophie has an entire suite of patents on this kind of two-part design — here's #8,971,039, which covers a slight variation of a two-piece design in which the top part slides over an extended piece of the bottom part. There's also any number of design patents at play here; virtually every popular Mophie case has a design patent on its ornamental, nonfunctional elements. (For example, newer Mophie cases have a detachable bottom part; the company has design patents on that variation.)
If you look at the rest of the battery cases out there, you'll notice that most companies stay away from Mophie's two-part design: the vast majority of cases use snap-on bezels, while a few use sled designs. The only companies that have a two-part case are outfits so small it's not really worth a big Mophie lawsuit — the company has tons and tons of counterfeiters to worry about first anyway.
Sometimes the solution lies far in the other direction
The other thing you'll notice is that all those other designs, uh, kinda suck. They're certainly not elegant, and it's hard to imagine Apple going for a plasticky snaps-and-clips solution of keeping things in a case. So the company needed a slide-in design without a removable top, and it couldn't round off the edges of the case without facing at least some chance of running into the various Mophie design patents. How do you solve that? By charging hard in the other direction: making a single-piece case with a floppy top and a bulging battery that has nothing in common with various patented Mophie designs. (Bonus points if you also spotted the lurking trade dress issue: lots of people call these cases "Mophies" regardless of brand, and by creating a totally distinct design, Apple also sidestepped any potential likelihood of confusion with the Mophie products.)
So that's my theory — Apple didn't have a comment when I asked. But it's hard to see how a company as designed-focused as Apple ends up with a battery case this strange without acknowledging that they were late to market, faced a meaningful competitor with a strong patent portfolio, and perhaps just did what it had to do.
Verge Review: Apple's goofy battery case