Siliconcowboy's Blog

Technology, journalism, social media and social responsibility

Opinion: Colors are the New Weakest Link

iphone5CSmartphones are engineered to break.

There’s no sneaking around this truth. They are small, they are designed to fit in a shirt pocket or a pants pocket, they can be placed precariously on a table or the edge of your truck bed. They slip, they fall, and they break. And the part that breaks the most often, despite early claims to the contrary, is the glass display.

But let’s not stop there, because there are plenty of other parts in a typical smart phone that can break or, more likely, get jolted loose in a drop. Antenna connections, audio ports, and Wi-Fi chips are just a few of the pieces that are connected in easily disrupted ways. Start buttons fail with constant use. Power connectors get ripped out.

At this point, you have to ask, “Why would smart phone makers want their phones to break?” And the answer is simple: So you will buy another one.

It used to be that thefts were the biggest reason why a customer would come in for a new phone. But with password protection – and now, fingerprint security – smartphone thefts can be expected to go down dramatically. This means the average user will hold on to an old phone longer, stretching out the lifecycle of the device and reducing overall sales.

Smartphone makers need a backup failure mechanism, and breakage is it.

To their credit, smartphone makers have gone to great lengths to show that their phones are already pretty rugged. Apple for example spent millions explaining how its glass technology was the state of the art in glass hardness.

But the facts tell a different story. Smartphone glass is pretty easy to break. I have a daughter who has broken the glass on six smart phones in four years, and some of them multiple times.

Now I’m not suggesting that every smartphone should be RAD-hard, although on the other hand, it’s not that difficult to make them a bit more rugged than they are.

Of course at this point, the rejoinder is, “why doesn’t your daughter just buy a cover for her phone?”

And that’s obviously a great idea.  There are fun covers and cute covers, and there are even covers that are completely waterproof and capable of withstanding significant shocks.

But here’s the kicker: teens and  young adults don’t like them. Once they have used them for a year or two, they feel like amateurs if they still have to put them on their phones. And smartphone makers don’t like the cases either.

That’s because fatal drops are likely to bring additional sales (statistically, fatal drops are more likely to happen after the warranty expires), and with good marketing, most purchasers will dismiss an insurance policy for the phone because they think they won’t need it.

Perhaps the most blatant proof of this break-them-to-replace-them design strategy yet, are the new iPhone 5C and 5S phones. Supposedly, it’s all about colors. Five of them on the 5C, three (including gold) on the 5S.

But it’s not really about the color: it’s about making sure you don’t cover it.

By marketing a phone with five color choices, they’re making it easier for you to dissuade yourself from buying a cover. After all, why would you cover up that beautiful color that you just paid $200 for?

Or, if you do cover it, they want you to put one of the new Apple covers on, because it doesn’t wrap all the way around the phone and, most important, it doesn’t protect the corner of the glass – the single most vulnerable point on any smart phone.

To skeptics, I pose this one challenge: carry your new iPhone 5C phone without a cover and see how long it lasts.

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This entry was posted on September 11, 2013 by in Chip+System Design.
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