Unpacked: The Need for Ruggedized Smartphones

I’ve gotten a question quite a bit lately from tech industry folks about the need for more rugged devices. Smartphones that don’t break when you drop them or don’t stop working when you dump them in the pool or ocean, etc. How big of a feature is a water resistant, or even waterproof, phone in the future? Motorola pitched the Droid Turbo 2 as a shatterproof screen. How big of a selling point was this feature? How about something as simple as better battery life. How big of a deal would that be as a feature?

What is interesting to keep in mind is that features like the ones I listed above are infinitely more valuable once you have dropped/cracked your screen, or dropped your phone in water, or ran out of battery well before the end of the day. Consumers need to have felt the pain, if you will, in order to recognize the feature as valuable. This is not to say they won’t see a waterproof or shatterproof phone as something to invest in to be cautious but that it becomes infinitely more valuable as a selling point once you have experienced the pain.

With Apple and Samsung touting water resistance (and possibly some day waterproofing) and Motorola’s shatterproof screen along with future innovations from Corning that may offer the same feature on many phones, my curiosity got the better of me. I decided to poll consumers in our iOS panel to see if any of these smartphone mishaps have happened to them.

As it turns out, consumers are more clumsy than I thought.

Cracked Screen
Overall, 61% of consumers have cracked their screen in some way. 33% of those who cracked their screen didn’t crack it bad enough to necessitate a replacement screen and they indicated they continued to use it until they upgraded their smartphone. 28% said they cracked their screen and paid for a replacement for that device.

Even though my poll covered just over 400 consumers and iPhones only, for this demographic with a +/- of 4%, I’d suggest the data tells us a good portion of the market has been impacted by a cracked screen in some way and would see the value/benefit of a shatterproof smartphone.

Water Resistance
Not surprisingly, fewer consumers have been impacted by their phones being dropped in water than having their screen cracked. Altogether, only 41% of iPhone owners indicated dropping (and fully submerging their iPhone as a result) in water. 28% of those affected by a water hazard indicated they could and did continue to use their phone even after dropping it in water. 13%, however, were not so lucky and needed to purchase or acquire another smartphone to use.

No question, this is a great feature and safety precaution but, in terms of pain points, it seems screen damage has happened to more people than water damage. Now, waterproofing may be a different value proposition. While I’m sure Apple doesn’t recommend it and while the iPhone isn’t touted as being “waterproof”, which I interpret to mean OK to use in water and not just drop in water, I have been taking pictures and video underwater of my kids with the iPhone 7 Plus in our pool. I could see how a fully waterproof phone could be more attractive than just a water resistant one and hope Apple goes in this direction. Personally, I’d love to not need my GoPro. Perhaps that is just me.

Better Battery
In a surprise to no one, battery life is a more broad consumer pain point. While most of the market has had battery life issues of some kind, kids in particular (no kid at my daughters Jr. High go anywhere without a battery pack), I snuck a very distinct question into this poll on batteries. I asked specifically how many consumers have fully run out of battery by 5pm and not had a charger with them and thus were without a phone for a period of time. I appreciate that, with this question, I’m being extremely specific with the scenario. However, 58% of iPhone owners in our poll said they have experienced this exact scenario.

Year after year of battery life gains may be one of the most significant initiatives that manufacturers continue to make progress on. How, you may ask? The answer is silicon. I remember in the 2005/2006 time frame, Intel had an initiative called “eight hours in 2008”. Their goal was to get eight hours of battery life by 2008. If memory serves, this particular benchmark was not achieved until 2010 and still many PCs in the market don’t get 8 hours (but a great many do). Intel solved this through Moore’s Law as their processors became more efficient while still being powerful.

Apple is on a similar course, designing their silicon with efficiency while still being extremely powerful. This, plus lower power display innovations, are how we achieve even better than “all day” battery life in our smartphones and other gadgets. That and when we can officially get rid of old network technology like CDMA, GPRS, 1xrtt, Edge, etc, and move to full LTE. LTE, 4g and even more so with 5g, are extremely efficient on power when it comes to data.

We are a few years away from all the pieces to be in place for battery experiences to feel like a breakthrough. But when it happens, it will be a bold new world.

Published by

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

10 thoughts on “Unpacked: The Need for Ruggedized Smartphones”

  1. Ben, look at the Samsung S7 Active. It’s very impressive with a shatterproof screen, waterPROOF, and a 4000 mAh battery. And it weighs only about 1.5 ounces more than an iPhone 6. It It has a great feel and solid construction using matte black metal with a non-slip rubber inlay.

    1. I’m not quite sure what your intention is by bringing up the Samsung S7 Active.

      1. Are you trying to show proof that ruggedised phones with long battery life are a niche product and do not actually sell too well?
      2. Are you trying to suggest that ruggedised phones cannot always be taken at face value? http://www.zdnet.com/article/samsung-stands-by-waterproof-claims-for-galaxy-s7-active/
      3. Are you suggesting that the Samsung S7 Active design is something that would appeal to mainstream customers?

      Ruggedised PCs and smartphones have existed for quite a while and although they have seen some degree of success, they have always been niche products. The question is not whether niche ruggedised products exist (the will almost always do), but rather will mainstream customers be willing to carry these beastly designs with them. Of course, marketing sometimes changes mainstream conceptions, and can make ruggedised designs quite fashionable (Casio G-Shock, for example).

      In the case of the iPhone, Apple’s priorities are clear. They will make ruggedised part of their feature set only if;
      1. It does not compromise design or “thinness”.
      2. It does not sacrifice the sleekness of the design.

      Interestingly on the other hand, they are more than willing to sacrifice 100-year old analog I/O.

      1. I would think within the context of this article, this would make an excellent case study to see how important those features mentioned in the article are to customers.

        Or you could just be jadedly cynical.


        1. Yes.

          The thing is though, just asking whether a customer values certain ruggedness related feature is not necessarily meaningful. This is because ruggedness is often a tradeoff between design and usability. Even though a customer may desire a drop-proof phone, they may not be willing to buy one which has rubber bumpers on the sides and back. Even customers who complain about battery life, may actually not be willing to buy a phone with larger battery capacity if that phone is going to be 50 grams heavier; they might just buy an external battery pack.

          Absolute importance is not the key. What we need to understand is the importance of these ruggedness features relative to the compromises that they require in design, etc.

          The Samsung S7 Active illustrates the tradeoffs very well.

          1. At the same time, there is a very real niche aspect to this, it is priced as niche, especially within the Android smartphone market. A bit OT, I am always amazed when people use “niche” disparagingly (for instance to belittle Apple) and when it is used as a feature (for instance to demonstrate Apple’s focus).

            In reality, Apple’s market is not the smartphone market, it is simply the iPhone market. People are buying Apple iPhone because it is Apple iPhone, not because it is the best at everything it does. Or else Jan’s article of “good enough” is totally wrong.

            I really do think Apple is at the point now that if they released the Active it would be proclaimed an innovative master piece. Not that they should or would. But the brand has taken on mythical proportions to what they actually deliver. Thus the battery life has always been “good enough”, the glass strength has always been “good enough”, the water resistance has been “good enough”. If that were not true, they never would have sold as many as they have.

            I still think car analogies are better WRT iPhone/smartphone, but the reasoning behind Obarthelemy’s handbag analogy is not far off, either. Else, Apple’s own recent sales declines would not be relevant.


  2. It is truly amazing how much we are willing to put up with IRT our buying decisions, even in the face of safety. How many people will keep the Samsung Note phones and not bother with the recall? Even with other products, how many people keep and keep using a product that has been officially recalled, such as cars?

    And I would imagine the biggest reason is the inconvenience of downtime (but I was never good at Family Feud survey questions) and or the aggravation of the process itself. Not only do I risk being without my device for a period of time, I have to take time out of my life _again_ (just like I had to do to get the device to begin with).


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