New smartphone tech: firms are on the case

Traditionally smartphone cases have been largely decorative, with their only practical function being to protect the phone against damage (or, in a certain instance, to allow users to make calls while holding the phone.) Now two different companies have come up with ways to make better use of a case.

A company called Freedom Pop has produced an iPhone case that gives users “free” high-speed wireless access each month through a built-in WiMax modem. After tweaking their original business model, the company is now offering 500MB of free access each month.

Users can increase this limit up to 1GB through a somewhat vague deal involving a “social layer” where communication with other users earns extra data. Alternatively, users are able to transfer some or all of their monthly allowance to other users, though any money that changes hands for this will have to be taken care of independently.

Any use beyond the monthly limit is charged at 1 cent per megabyte. At the equivalent of $10 per GB, that’s comparable with similar costs on contract WiMax plans from the major cellphone networks. The case effectively acts as a wireless hotspot, so it should be possible to use the data on devices other than the iPhone.

There’s a $99 up-front cost for the case, though this is refundable at any time as long as you return it in working condition. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the company waits a few months and then begins offering owners of the case a monthly paid plan with higher data limits.

Meanwhile another firm, iCache, has created an iPhone case (pictured) that also acts as a physical “digital wallet.” It’s a somewhat convoluted process, but in effect it allows you to make card payments as usual even if you don’t have your card with you (but are still carrying your phone.)

To use the system, you attach a special card reader to the case and swipe your debit or credit card to add it to your collection; the card is verified to make sure it belongs to the owner of the phone case. It also works with store loyalty cards, though you add these by taking a photo of the barcode.

The case itself holds a removable smartcard with a magnetic strip which can be immediately programmed to work in place of any of the cards that you have added to the system, just by tapping a button in the accompanying app. The card will then work for a limited (user adjustable) time before reverting back to “blank” status, which is designed as a security measure. For loyalty cards, the case simply displays the stored barcode on a small e-ink display which (unlike an iPhone screen) should be scannable.

To further reduce security risks, the case has a biometric reader on the front and will only work when the user has swiped their finger print. The user can also back-up the stored details online (to save having to rescan all their cards after changing handsets), with the back-up encryption based on the finger-print itself. If the case is lost or stolen, a new one is sent out by overnight delivery, though the company hasn’t detailed the costs of this.

The idea of the system is to work without needing extra equipment in the phone itself (such as an NFC chip), and without the retailer needing any special devices.
The case, to be marketed under the name Geode, will be available later this summer for $199.