THE BLOG

Apple and Samsung Need to Make Their Smartphones Rugged and Fit for Purpose

07/09/2015 12:09 BST | Updated 04/09/2016 10:59 BST

Five years on from a seminal report that laid out in plain terms how smartphones were fragile objects that should be handled with absolute care, nothing has changed; they still break too easily.

Smartphones are expensive purchases, but are as brittle as frozen grass when dropped even from a low height and as sensitive as unrequited love when coming anywhere near water, but their makers appear to care little for this.

The 2010 report from San Francisco-based technology warranty service company SquareTrade analysed failure rates of more than 50,000 smartphones. It found that accidental damage was responsible for more than 75% of smartphone failures with 77% of those because they were dropped. Water damage was the second biggest culprit.

Nothing at all has changed as recent updated surveys report. Moreover, the industry that surrounds broken screens is as useless and suspicious as the smartphones it purports to fix. Every town has one. Small unregulated shops that appear to keep their prices to such a point that it's just about able to justify taking them to be repaired... then they break down again.

Operators are happy as well for this situation to exist. A broken phone enables them to bring the customer further into its fold and another very long contract. As for the handset makers themselves, they are delighted to be able to offer updated models, while existing models (which aren't damaged) last longer.

With the rapid acceleration in technology across all areas of life, it seems at best incongruous and at worst suspicious that smartphones are designed to be non-wearable and flimsy. As the world's leading handset makers, Apple and Samsung should be held accountable for producing such products... and insurance companies should be more demanding they sell more durable smartphones.

It's not as if the technology doesn't exist. The smaller the smartphone is, the stronger it is. Ask any African who owns a smartphone. For less than $50 they have something that does more or less everything it needs to do and is as strong as the proverbial ox that ploughs the continent's land.

But not just Africa. Poor people across the world who can't afford the latest smartphone more than make do with internet-connected devices that are cheap, resistant and long-lasting.

And the technology exists at the other end of the scale as well. Known as the 'rugged' sector, the 'strongphones' market is exploding for those who need something rugged for their professions, most notably tradespeople.

One such company is the Bullitt Group that designs, manufactures, markets and sells consumer electronic devices in partnership with global brands. It is the worldwide licensee of Caterpillar for rugged mobile devices and accessories, It also works with Kodak for easy-to-use connected devices and Ministry of Sound and Ted Baker for audio products.

The company recently launched its fourth smartphone, the Cat Rugged S40 Cat phone that shares qualities that the more well-known bulldozers and trucks that the Caterpillar brand possesses. The company has actively targeted the construction market as one where their products will prosper.

It's not cheap. Coming in at around £400, the price can be compared with fragile high-end smartphones, but it is virtually indestructible and worth the investment. The company contends that it can be 'drop-tested' up to 1.8 metres onto concrete without damage and can be immersed into water for 30 minutes without leakage.

"Too many people are being let down and left out-of-pocket by damaged smartphones due to them being used in work environments they were not built for. We recognised the need to use our expertise to launch a stylish, rugged smartphone that offers protection alongside style and performance", says Oliver Schulte, CEO of Bullitt Mobile.

Quite so. If the Bullitt Group can make smartphones that last, the construction market will not be the only one it appeals to; most of us would love to own a device that lasts longer than a year. If the S40 can survive 30 minutes in water and be dropped from nearly two metres and still work, then that works for most people.

There's also the culture of phones being lost. While this has certainly improved over the past five years with users being more careful with their smartphones and security features meaning it's not worth stealing as much as before, the S40 and other such phones are also useful.

Perhaps it's about time Apple and Samsung took the rugged phone market seriously. If not, it may be too late for themselves to be taken seriously. Customers are sick of being offered deliberately fragile products that break on demand, rugged phones offer a serious alternative.