The Next Smartphone Battleground: Durability

Bob O'Donnell / April 29th, 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.

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.”

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.

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
  • qka

    How many people armor their phone in a case? I see a lot of svelte iPhones encased in comparatively huge Otter Box cases. Kind of defeats Jony Ive’s design chops though. How many people use a screen protecting film? You can’t really see those in use, if you’re trying to judge that in public.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      True, many people get around some of these issues with big cases, but as you point out, sort of defeats the purpose of a phone’s design. If people could have the durability of having a case, without the actual need for one, that would be the ideal.

      • Space Gorilla

        The industrial design of the phone itself speaks to quality, it does serve a purpose beyond just what it looks like. It’s a strong signal that the total product is thoughtfully constructed. I use cases and screen protectors for all our iOS devices, and lo and behold nothing broken or cracked on nine devices so far.

  • krabbie

    I believe the venders WANT more durable phones! Why? Venders make money on Plans not phones. Why do all the venders “GIVE” away phones. Their money is in the contract, the phone is the bait.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      Well, the carriers make the money on plans, not the smartphone vendors (in most all cases). So, carriers aren’t crazy about phone lifetimes lengthening–witness all their heavy promotions recently to get you on a plan where you change every year. Similarly, added durability features is a dual-edged sword for the smartphone vendors because it could lead to less frequent purchases for them.

      • krabbie

        You are exactly right I missed the vender/carrier quandary. Sorry. The carriers want loyalty from the yearly swap thing. And venders do have added skin in the durability game. Every time I use my iPhone I know the vender and judge the durability and ease of use. But Seems all a game.

  • stefnagel

    Apple won the durability war long ago … simply by replacing phones that are broken. And with great materials. See the Gazelle site: it will purchase even broken iPhones for their “bullion” value. Not so Samsung.
    The next big battle is security, not durability. I’d love to hear what Samsung is doing to build a superb crypto engine like Apple’s, which involves hardware, firmware, and software … not to mention control over apps.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      Well, having lived through several iPhones with cracked screens in my family, I would beg to differ. And I don’t know about you, but when I walked into Apple stores with them they definitely did not offer me a free replacement….
      Regarding security, sure, that’s important, but I was focused more on hardware innovations for this particular column.

    • berult

      I so totally agree with your prognosis. Purposely designed security/privacy/networking, the winning trifecta so to speak, trumps all in the i-era. Nothing…and I mean nothing can be more durable than a trustworthy platform onto which one can lay one’s life, one’s family life, one’s friend life, one partner’s life on the line.

      Trust…holds water.

  • Anders CT

    Durability is not so easy to define. Hard materials are also by nature brittle, while tough materials are softer.

    What it essentially boils down to, is that shatter-proof screens will scratch easily, while scratch resistant materials chip, crack or shatter easily. A sapphire screen will be extremely difficult to scratch, but will break much more readily than, say, a screen of plexiglas or polycarbonate.

    • dorkyman

      To our family the smartphone is a tool, not an icon to be worshiped. We all have the same phones. I bought a spare phone on eBay for $100 and a couple of glass screens for $5 each, backed up the phones with MyBackupPro. Sure enough, wife dropped her phone numerous times, finally cracking the screen. Using instructions on YouTube, I replaced the screen in about 15 minutes. For $5.

      If a phone is lost or destroyed, we have a spare. Just put in the new serial number, restore phone image, back in business in about an hour.

      This is a maturing industry, with only incremental improvements year to year. The phones are easy to fix if they are dropped.

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