Rugged is the new black: water-resistant phones will take over

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I predict that by the fourth quarter of 2015, more than 50% of global smartphones sold will comply with the IP67/68 standard, and be dust-proof and water-resistant or even waterproof.

Why?

Because making phones water-resistant is easy, cheap, useful and inevitable. Ten years from now, no one will even believe you when you tell them that phones used to have the warranties invalidated after only a few seconds in water, or even spilling a coffee on the device! Plus, it will help sell more phones faster, which the device makers are always keen on.

Let’s start off with cheap and easy. Just think of all the MUCH-cheaper consumer devices that are already water-resistant or water-proof: GPS devices and so on. Many also have headphone jacks, card slots or replaceable batteries, yet they manage to keep working , even in very harsh conditions.

There are multiple or mixed approaches that smartphones could adopt: silicone plugs for the ports; do away with ports and rely on Bluetooth and wireless charging; conformal coating or nanocoating; or even plain old gaskets! I can’t find any hard data, but based on the specs and prices of the phones out there that are already water-resistant, the cost can’t be more than $1-2.

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30% of American iPhone owners have had their phones damaged in the last 12 months, with 27% of those reporting damage due to liquid, or 8% of all iPhones! The “stick it in uncooked rice” trick is all over the web, but it appears not to be a very good idea. If the phone is irretrievably damaged by water, it is usually not covered under warranty and you are out hundreds of dollars. Why not just make the device water-resistant for a couple of bucks?

Next, although a recent online poll suggested that only 11% of consumers insist on water-resistance in their next smartphone, manufacturers are almost certainly going to be pushing this feature. We are collectively upgrading our phones at longer and longer intervals, now waiting 24 months between new devices. For an industry that used to get us to buy a new phone every year and half, they don’t like this trend and they need something to get us to pony up the dough. And some of the things that worked in the past won’t work in the future.

Screens with better resolutions and more pixels per inch (PPI) have been driving upgrades for the last few years: but even-higher pixel densities will offer improvements that can’t be seen by the average human eye. Bigger phones like phablets are working: they will be 25% of all smartphones sold worldwide. But they can’t get any bigger without turning into tablets. Better cameras used to be a great reason to buy a new phone – but after about 10 megapixel sensors, the limiting factor on picture quality becomes the camera lens and that is not easy to incorporate into the average slim smartphone body.

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Batteries aren’t getting any better, 4G radios will be the norm for the next five years at least, and while quad core processors have their virtues, going to eight or even 16 cores has no real benefit on any device, following Amdahl’s Law.

Once again, why not spend $2 on making a phone water-resistant, and offer users something they actually need and makes a real difference?

I have seen this movie before. In 1976, my family took a trip to Disneyland, and I came back with a Mickey Mouse watch. As always, my sister and I took turns washing the dishes after dinner when we got back home. I usually remembered to take off my new watch first, but one time I forgot, a little bit of water got inside and the watch was ruined forever. 😦

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And that was normal. It was quite rare for watches to be water-resistant in the 1970s (and earlier): companies like Rolex and Timex made waterproof watches, and that was their main selling point! “Takes a licking, and keeps on ticking.” At a guess, fewer than 10% of watches were water-resistant when I was growing up. But technology improved, quartz watches are easier to waterproof than mechanical movements, and time marched on.

I asked a group of around 50 people yesterday who owned a watch. Almost everyone put up their hand. Then I asked who owned a watch that was NOT water-resistant. Not a single hand went up. Water-resistance is table-stakes in the watch business in 2014, and I predict the same will become true for smartphones over the next few years. And ten years from now, you probably won’t even be able to buy a smartphone that isn’t waterproof.

Thanks again to Brian Piccioni, who provided some of the ideas and fact checking on this topic. You can read more from Brian here.

[Please note that the first sentence does NOT say “Deloitte predicts…” This is my personal blog. For a prediction to go through the full Deloitte process involves hundreds of hours of research, checks with customers, buyers, other research firms and some of the more than 8,000 Deloitte practitioners who specialise in Technology, Media & Telecommunications. But this may turn into a full Deloitte TMT Prediction for publication January 2015, so you can say you were there at the genesis!]

Next post: What about shock-proof? Water is only half the battle…

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