Despite high-profile launches of waterproof flagship handsets, the majority of devices still go to market vulnerable to spillages and heavy rain. Increased consumer expectations and cost of repair led to the emergence of companies developing techniques to take water resistance into the mainstream, but will the OEMs be willing to foot the bill?
IDC reports the number of handsets shipped with water protection in Western Europe increased 45.2 per cent year-on-year and accounted for 22.5 million handsets in the January-September 2016 period. The report also estimates damage related to liquids is costing stakeholders – including operators, manufacturers and insurance companies – $10.7 billion per year across Western Europe.
Devices offering water protection in today’s market tend to be at higher price-points. Sony hailed the level of the waterproofing on its flagship devices since the launch of the Xperia Z in 2013. Since then, Apple and Samsung, among others, have followed suit, but the facility rarely trickles down into the mid-tier.
Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, told Mobile World Live while manufacturers had worked hard to protect their high tier devices, many are still wary about the economics of the process.
“Making a device truly waterproof adds some significant overheads in terms of design and manufacture,” he said, adding: “Also phone makers are nervous about making bold claims on waterproofing because history has shown that some consumers can make unrealistic demands on their devices and this can lead to unwanted warranty claims.”
“Waterproofing is typically done to protect phones against accidental contact with water – be that being dropped in the bath or down the toilet. Once consumers start taking them swimming there start to be problems.”
Targeting the mid-tier
Most high-end water resistant handsets protect with traditional mechanical waterproofing techniques used for years in rugged device manufacture. However, technology is now available that offers corrosion protection by coating the circuit elements, rather than just the outside of the device.
Companies selling this method say it is more flexible and can be developed to be viable for handsets at lower price-points. Among the companies using this method of protection is UK-based chemicals firm P2i.
Speaking at the company’s UK lab, P2i Group CEO Ady Moores told Mobile World Live developments to its nano-coating technology would soon help OEMs deliver water resistance on devices further down their price scale.
Moores said: “The market we’re aiming at right now is the mid- to high-end smartphone market. Over time we see use of our splash-proof coating filtering down the price points, eventually to the lower end. As we further engineer our technology and work on further efficiencies in the manufacturing process, we will be able to bring the price-point down.”
Protection as standard
While not divulging the additional cost of water resistant technology, or how coating compares to the cost of mechanical seal solutions, Moores said the price would eventually be low enough to expand availability into all handsets, including those targeted specifically at developing markets.
He believes users in areas with challenging weather conditions and tropical climates are among the consumers who could benefit most from the technology.
Protecting every smartphone may seem a long way off, and it will be interesting to see how the likes of Apple and Samsung promoting this protection on their flagships will impact the market.
If consumers begin to expect this as a standard feature, manufacturers may be forced to adopt processes and simply absorb them into the cost – especially if the number of returns begins to increase if consumers believe their devices are already protected.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.