2016 saw the launch of a number of flagship handset devices such as the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7, incorporating liquid ingress protection into the design, which will forever change the fundamentals of what is expected of a smartphone. Water resistant handsets are now the fastest growing segment in the industry and as consumer expectations begin to change, it has become an increasingly sought after feature.
Give the people what they want
After battery life and shatterproof screens, a YouGov survey conducted last year found that water resistance is now the most important feature influencing consumers decisions when it comes to choosing a device. That's perhaps unsurprising when you consider that IDC also discovered that liquid damage is now the second most common cause of handset damage (after, you guessed it, shattered screens), accounting for a third of all repairs (35%). Accidental splashes and spills can happen so easily for the normal everyday user, and water resistance is now expected, if not quite yet the norm, to mitigate the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
Supply to match demand
Over 900,000 smartphones are damaged by liquids each day, yet only 27 out of the 360 manufacturers tracked in the report by IDC offer some kind of water resistance. With so few manufacturers offering water resistance currently, demand in the marketplace dictates that the next 12-18 months could see a seismic shift in the number of manufactures developing products with some level of water resistance built in, and this won't exclusively be on high-end devices.
The key indicator for this is that in the first six months of 2016, shipments of smartphones that offer some level of liquid protection increased by 45%, while shipments of devices without was down 17% in the same period.
The good news is that although only a limited number of manufacturers are offering water resistance, most of the big ones are taking it seriously. Motorola, for example, was already offering water resistance as standard, on its entire product range. It's fair to say though that the iPhone 7 announcement had the most meaningful impact on the marketplace and the level of interest and enquiries from other manufacturers looking for water resistant solutions sky-rocketed at P2i at the back end of last year following that particular launch.
Getting products to market
There are a couple of different options open to handset manufacturers wanting to offer protection from liquid on smartphones today. Those that have had it on their 'to do' list for a while will be exploring the possibility of putting mechanical solutions such as gaskets and seals on devices to offer complete protection. But, issues such as heat retention, increased R&D and manufacturing costs and complexity of handset design mean that mechanical sealing isn't always easily achievable in the short term.
The other problem is that any drop or bend can compromise seals and their ability to maintain the advertised levels of water protection they promise.
Hydrophobic nano-coating however is a more financially viable option for manufacturers who don't have the R&D resources of a Samsung or an Apple, because mass-scale application and integration with the production cycle, is a lot more straightforward. A hydrophobic nano-coated device can withstand the day-to-day accidents that most people experience, caused by rain, condensation, sweat and running water, all without significantly increasing the cost of manufacturing, impacting the aesthetics of a handset, or making devices significantly more expensive for consumers.
Liquids simply roll off the hydrophobic coating, due to the low surface energy a coated device will generate and the coating itself is invisible, meaning it can be applied to any component - such as the speaker or the microphone - on any device without impacting the performance of the phone. What's more, heat can freely escape through the coating, which is another advantage of nano-coating devices over incorporating mechanical seals.
Democratising water resistance
With use cases at multiple product price points and strong ROI, hydrophobic nano-coating is the mass market answer to making large segments of the smartphone market water resistant in a relatively short space of time. There is increasingly very little to differentiate any number of smartphone devices from one another, so features like water resistance will become a fundamental aspect of smartphone performance in the next few years, as it becomes an expectation, rather than an exception.