The Next Smartphone Battleground: Durability

on April 29, 2014

As smartphones continue to evolve, it’s getting harder and harder for vendors to create compelling new features and functions that drive existing users to upgrade their phones. Sure, there are important increases in screen sizes and resolutions, improvements in camera quality and modest increases in performance/. But most of these have been underway for quite a while now. Plus, with a few important exceptions (I’m talking about you, future large screen iPhone), they are already part of the mainstream options most of us are using today.

But there is one area very few vendors have tackled I believe is going to be increasingly important: a phone’s durability. I’m always amazed at how often I see people still using phones with modestly or even horribly cracked screens for example, and speaking from my own experience, there is no device I own that gets more abuse than my smartphone. While I don’t have any hard statistics on it, I have to believe a good percentage of smartphone replacement purchases are based on “broken phones”—either from dropping on the ground, dropping in liquid or any number of other accidental spills bound to happen to devices most of us carry with us all the time and everywhere we go. Based on this, having a more durable device is bound to be attractive to consumers of all types (and all over the world). Yet the vast majority of phones in use and currently being sold don’t feature any kind of enhanced “toughness.”

Part of the issue is there are many ways to add robustness to a device like a smartphone. Recently, we have started to see several vendors, notably Samsung with their S5 and Sony with some of their Xperia phones, offer pretty impressive waterproofing capabilities. Leveraging new coating materials that can protect both external and internal components from damage, these phones are being actively marketed as more durable.

The biggest challenge most users face isn’t waterproofing, however, but cracked screens. This is a much tougher problem to solve unfortunately, because the need for a clean, touch-friendly display has driven most vendors to glass—particularly chemically-strengthened varieties like Corning’s Gorilla Glass. But even fortified glass is still essentially glass and that means when you drop it, it often breaks. Some vendors are starting to look at plastic substrates and plastic cover layers—which, in some cases can also be used to create curved glass—in order to get around this. I expect we’ll see more developments in this area over the next 12-18 months. Other companies are also starting to consider more exotic materials, like transparent sapphire (chemically synthesized in labs, by the way, not from the naturally occurring jewel), with rumors the iPhone 6 could have a complete sapphire cover layer when it debuts later this year.[pullquote]The ironic reality is, as smartphone lifetimes lengthen because of the lack of compelling new hardware innovations, a feature designed to make them last even longer could be the ticket to trigger a new wave of upgrades.”[/pullquote]

Of course, part of the challenge is also the fact vendors may not be as interested in adding durability as they are other more whiz-bang features. Let’s be honest. Durability may be of practical value, but it isn’t exactly a sexy attribute and lots of phones are still sold on sex appeal. Plus, the longer devices last, the less frequently they are going to be replaced and that potentially works against vendors eager to sell more devices. The ironic reality is, however, as smartphone lifetimes start to lengthen because of the lack of compelling new hardware innovations, a feature designed to make them last even longer could be the ticket to trigger a new wave of upgrades.