For the average Joe that have managed to stay out of the Apple circle, the Just Mobile brand might not immediately ring a bell, but chances are you would've come across one of its peripheral designs at some point. The only problem is unless you knew the company in the first place, you'd easily assume that the aluminum or even plastic knock-offs are just based on generic designs, because there are simply too many of them. It's no wonder Just Mobile co-founders Nils Gustafsson and Erich Huang take imitations of all forms very personally (especially the ones they and their lawyers see at CES), but fortunately, we were spared from prolonged ranting when we visited the duo's office in Taichung, Taiwan recently. What we were treated to instead was an insight into how an accessory maker works with Apple and why Just Mobile manufactures exclusively in Taiwan, as well as getting a preview of the upcoming AluRack, HeadStand and AluBase that are due out this month.
Just Mobile Taichung office tour
Just Mobile AluRack, AluBase and HeadStand hands-on
Here's a little background on Just Mobile: the company started off as a PDA (mainly Windows Mobile) accessory OEM in around 2005, with Huang taking care of procurement plus manufacturing, and his talkative friend Gustafsson, an ex-banker, overlooking European sales. The Just Mobile brand was barely known in the market, and the company found it hard to follow and to provide great support for the rapidly-changing devices. But two years later the iPhone arrived. "Everything changed when Steve Jobs made the iPhone. It made us put other projects aside," said Gustafsson.
The change in direction led to the birth of Just Mobile's iconic and popular Xtand for iPhone, and contrary to popular belief, its iMac-like design was actually approved with enthusiasm by the relevant Apple staff when Gustafsson double-checked with them at WWDC; and of course, Apple also sells the Xtand. This was followed by the UpStand for iPad which, much like the original Xtand, was also designed in-house. But to fight the abundance of Apple accessories in the market, Huang and Gustafsson realized that they needed to go further in order to stand out. Luckily enough, they met Tools, a Denmark-based design house that specializes in elegant kitchen accessories by Eva Solo. "They are our exclusive designers for computing because they don't do anything like that anywhere else, so that's a big advantage for us," said Gustafsson. "We do like and appreciate that a lot because it brings fresh air. It's not an industrial designer who designs for mobile phones for generations and runs out of fresh ideas. They really have, sometimes, some very strange ideas and they don't give up on them."
Consequently, Tools and Just Mobile delivered many award-winning products together, including: Encore, Slide and Horizon iPad stands, AluPen and AluPen Pro styli, Lounge iPhone stand and Alupad mouse mat. We won't go through the entire list, but a couple of them did catch our attention due to their unique appearances and mechanisms. For instance, the Encore features a flat aluminum ring with a hinged, curved arm that stands a tablet up against a rubber lip on the other side of the ring, and it looks nice even when not in use.
Then there's the Slide (pictured above) which relies on interesting physics to support the iPad: a heavy high-friction rubber cylinder is pulled out of its tubular compartment under the metallic slope, and it can be placed anywhere on the slope to support the iPad at any desired angle, up to somewhere around 70 degrees -- you can see it and the others in action in the earlier video. Simple and unique designs like these are what Just Mobile strives for, but it is also constantly improving its portfolio through market feedback -- the addition of the pouch and stand for the AluPen is an example.
Taking things down to a deeper level, Huang and Gustafsson revealed part of the key to successfully getting Apple's thumbs-up for their products. For anything that involves electronic parts, manufacturers need a "Made for iPhone" or "Made for iPod" certification in order to be featured by Apple, the application for which costs just several hundreds of dollars each time. That obviously contributes very little towards the so-called "Apple tax." Instead, the main culprit of the price hike is actually this stern requirement: certified products are required to use parts made by Apple's approved suppliers, like Foxlink for the iPod dock connectors, for instance.
Gustafsson said other suppliers could be up to 50 percent cheaper, but as with many of the big players out there, the relationship with Apple is priceless. Not so much because of the exposure in the Apple shops, but it's more about the plentiful feedback and hints that Apple provides. One such example is that just months before the Lightning connector became official, Just Mobile launched the AluCable Twist which bridges the classic 30-pin iPod dock connector to USB, but at one point Apple actually hinted at the manufacturer to avoid investing too much into cables. Now we all know why.
But even without Apple's requirements, Just Mobile proactively spends more in order to churn out what it believes to be better products. For one, the company takes the odd route and gets all the manufacturing done in Taiwan exclusively, despite the 20 percent hike in production costs compared to that of China. But in return, this makes it easier for the company to control production quality, as well as to make it harder for Asian copycats -- Gustafsson said you just don't know if a contractor sets up a second line to produce clones.
A more important factor is that some nearby factories around Just Mobile's Taichung office actually produce components for Apple, including the aluminum parts, so Just Mobile's able to obtain the absolute identical grade and finish of aluminum as used by Apple, which is obviously a "crazy advantage." Speaking of which, Huang and Gustafsson used to source from a big Austrian company that manufactured aluminum parts for Bang & Olufsen, but nothing went smooth due to the slower pace over there: Gustafsson, who is a German, said them Europeans have too many long vacations, and consequently people were often not at their desks when he or Huang needed to get in touch. On the other hand, everything in Taiwan is faster and more efficient.
That's not enough to win customers over, of course, so there's always the "one more thing" that Just Mobile tries to throw into all of its products. In the case of his Gum series external batteries, Huang is proud of the fact that they use good quality cells from Sanyo (which is part of Panasonic) and Sony, while many competitors use non-branded cells which are less reliable. And on the outside, again, some effort has been put towards making users feel at home: there's a black belt sandwiched between two aluminum covers, which is very much like the backside of the unibody MacBooks; and at the press of a button, the green battery level indicator shows up in the same manner as those on some Apple laptops. Interestingly, these batteries are Just Mobile's only line of electronic products. "We focus on pure products. We try to stay out of electronics as long as we can," said Gustafsson.
The same rule applies to Just Mobile's three upcoming products, all of which consist of mainly aluminum. The AluRack (left) is designed by the famed Jakob Wagner from Denmark, and by securing it onto the back of any aluminum iMac or Cinema Display, it becomes a simple rack and lets you keep your laptop out of sight. Similarly, the AluBase (right), also a Wagner design, lets you stand your laptop up vertically in order to maximize your desk space, and it comes with interchangeable sleeves to fit the various Apple laptops (we actually think this works better than Twelve South's BookArc, though it's not necessarily as good-looking). And finally, the HeadStand in the middle is merely for hanging your headphones, while the gap between the two aluminum discs at the base lets you coil up the cable. Each of these will cost $49 in the US, €49 in Europe and £44 in the UK, and you should see them pop up at some point this month.
One final question we threw at Gustafsson and Huang towards the end of the interview was what they think of Apple under its new leadership. To our surprise, Gustafsson candidly said he's worried, as he could already sense a change through his frequent dealings with Apple. However, Gustafsson also emphasized that his company's not limited to making just Apple accessories. In fact, Just Mobile could be designing furniture or even lamps in the future. But for now, it's literally mostly Just Mobile for him and his Taiwanese buddy.