Trickling down: water resistance in the mobile industry

The future of the mobile industry lies in the democratisation of features such as water resistance, in order to meet consumer demands.

In the mobile industry, a handful of high-end handsets with all the latest innovations usually take up most of the media spotlight. The Samsung S8 is just the latest example of this, with innovative features and designs that will, over time, trickle down to the mid and low-end devices that now make up the majority of the market.

This is entirely understandable when introducing brand new features, given the time and resources it takes to develop these. But it is baffling that water resistance – a feature that has been around for a number of years – has not yet been deployed across most of the mid- to low-tier models. This shouldn’t be the case.

Shifting expectations

Consumer expectations are constantly changing and their requirements need to be addressed by handset designers. It is expected that at least some level of water resistance should be within reach of most people’s budgets.

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As consumer awareness and therefore demand is being fuelled by the likes of Sony, Samsung, and Apple with their high-profile handset launches, it is anticipated that water resistance will become available on all flagship devices in the near future.

Once water-protection becomes a standard feature at the top end of the market, consumer expectations will shift at the lower end of the market and some level of protection will be expected on all devices.

Clearly there is a need for water protection to be a feature on most mobile handsets, as liquid is one of the most common causes of damage to devices. Data from IDC backs this up: the total number of devices shipped featuring water resistance has increased 76% year on year in the first nine months of 2016, compared to the previous year.

It is anticipated that this figure will continue to grow against the backdrop of rising consumer expectations. And with liquid protection technology already in existence, the opportunity to unlock this feature for the rest of the market becomes much more achievable. However, most manufacturers have not yet embraced this innovation in order to do so.

Overcoming hurdles

Two of the largest barriers to implementing technology to prevent water ingress in the mid-to-low tier devices are time and cost. The technology takes time to develop and time to get to market.

On average, the introduction of water resistant solutions can increase the length of the testing cycle by one to two months, and that is without factoring in extra time if the design tests fail.

In addition, there are increased costs that can come from using mechanical solutions that use seals and gaskets. This is due to the extra engineering, hardware, and design compromises that are needed in these instances.

A further complication is that the materials used in the construction of mid-to-low tier devices do not often suit mechanical solutions. Where waterproofing methods include installing an ‘O-ring’ within the phone, high-strength materials are required to make the phone as rigid as it needs to be.

This is generally not a problem for high-end devices which have strong metal frames, but other smartphones are made up of less rigid materials such as plastic. These are often not as robust when placed under strain, and the seal is therefore weakened.

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Both manufacturers and consumers have the same demand: a reliable, quality product regardless of price point. And it’s not just users of high-end phones that require a level of water resistance.

Fortunately, this is where non-mechanical, nano-coating solutions come into their own. These protect a device in its entirety, regardless of the materials used and manufacturing scenarios in place, and so this makes them very accessible to the market. Furthermore, as the nano-coating process is refined the time taken to coat a device is reduced.

This means higher volumes can be achieved in a shorter space of time, which ultimately drives economies of scale. These savings made by the manufacturer can then be passed on to the rest of the market, so this option becomes more attractive to the lower end of it.

The transition phase

The development of water resistance in the industry is similar to that of internet access on mobiles. 10 years ago, only a few of the handsets on the market had this feature. But this changed quickly and high-end devices such as Blackberry’s were quick to feature email capabilities. Today, internet access is evidently now present on the majority of mobiles and has become the norm for the industry.

Turning back to water resistance, similar milestones in the adoption of this feature have already taken place. Motorola have been offering water resistance on a broad range of handsets since 2011, with more manufacturers following suit since then.

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With market leaders Samsung and Apple introducing their top-end water resistant products in 2016, it has become a question of not if, but when, competitors will need water resistance in their latest devices.

Looking to the future

Water resistance capabilities will naturally filter down to the lower end of the smartphone industry, as is the way with every new feature. But it’s now more important than ever that it does.

People now live in an ‘always-on’ world and are increasingly reliant on being constantly available and always connected, especially with the influx of the latest IoT technologies. Network operators can make all the advances they like to the quality of their network infrastructure as we move towards 5G, but if you can’t get online because your phone has gone for an untimely dunk in the bath or gotten wet in the rain, then this disables the connection anyway.

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Nano-coating offers a range of benefits to OEMs: it is an inexpensive solution, gives a strong ROI, and offers use cases at multiple product price points. These coatings have the potential to bring water resistance to the mass market and democratise water resistance by bringing these benefits to all users and manufacturers.

As there is now less scope for smartphones to be differentiated aesthetically, features and functions are going to be even more important in the next few years. Water resistance will therefore surely be an essential strand of a smartphone’s DNA.


Sourced by Nick Rimmer, VP of Product and Technology Strategies, P2i

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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