By Michael Fisher | March 21, 2012 1:34 PM
Before it was purchased by Sprint, I used to work for an American wireless carrier called Nextel. It differentiated itself from other carriers in several ways, one of them being its stable of durable hardware. Almost every handset was big, bulky, and nigh-indestructible.
My favorite phones to sell were those that met the requirements of U.S. MIL-STD 810. Though the standard is somewhat more flexible than is generally admitted, devices certified 810-compliant are broadly said to be capable of withstanding exposure to dust, shock, vibration, temperature extremes, high altitude environments, and solar radiation. Other sections of 810 also include resistance to immersion in water. In short, calling a phone “mil-spec 810-certified” was sales-floor shorthand for saying “it’s durable.” These were my favorite handsets to sell because they were tough to hurt, meaning the customers could take them into most environments without thinking too much.
Some durability provisions are made for very rare scenarios; I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to test my devices’ endurance to solar radiation. But everyone knows someone who’s dropped a phone in a pool, or the toilet, or off the side of a boat. And as tablet popularity grows, we’ll start to see them falling victim to such mishaps as well. Shattered screens and dust intrusion won’t be far behind.
True, not everyone lives the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of an action hero, but everyone does make mistakes, and everyone at some point drops gadgets. Wouldn’t it be nice to know you could beat up your tablet if you wanted to? That kind of versatility is, I think, incredibly rare and undervalued. I would never dream of taking my iPad with me on a boat, for example, at least not without some heavy-duty waterproof case. That’s a shame, considering the suite of useful nautical apps available for the iPad.
What about more mundane, domestic scenarios? I’m just gonna put it out there: I listen to music on my HP TouchPad in the shower. It doesn’t come into the water with me, of course; it blares tunes from the counter across the room, and it works well. But I’m always worried about the high humidity in the room tripping its water-damage indicators or doing something more serious to the unit. Additionally, when I receive a text message or an email that I’d like to check, I can’t bring it into the shower with me.
I know, I know: “Take shorter showers.” “Texting in the shower? Rearrange your priorities.” Etc. I’ll get right on that. The question remains, though: why shouldn’t I be able to?
My showers may be more extreme than most.
If the shower example is too extreme, then what about weather? Doesn’t it strike anyone else as slightly absurd that we’re capable of creating tablets that can keep us connected, entertained, and informed in nearly any location but they can’t handle a little rain shower? The same goes for waiting at a bus stop in freezing temperatures: why should I have to cradle this piece of magnificent technology to my chest, like a baby, to prevent it from freezing to death? When my hands go numb and I drop it on the sidewalk, why should I presume (rightly so) that when I pick it up, it’ll have a shattered face?
It seems to me that the reasons for the continued lack of durability are three: expense, expectations, and modularity.
Expense. Certifying something to MIL-STD 810 or IP57 costs manufacturers extra, even if they don’t run the full battery of tests that the standard calls for. Since not all consumers are going to put their devices through the ringer, these additional manufacturing costs can be tough to justify.
Expectations. Consumers have been trained to keep most computers and phones away from water, shock, dust, and other such nasties. Tablets are the first “new computers” of the post-PC era, and one of the down-sides of portable computers has always been their fragility. Customers know this, and don’t expect a tablet to survive much abuse. Ergo, they’re cautious.
Modularity. “There’s an app for that” is a phrase commonly used to describe the adaptability of device software. By the same token, “there’s a case for that” could be said to describe the huge array of accessories available to today’s consumers. Just as happened with mobile phones, a huge accessory market is developing around tablets: a Google search for “iPad waterproof case” just now netted 2.4 million results. The takeaway: if your device isn’t durable enough, you can MAKE it durable enough with an accessory.
But, you know what? Tablets aren’t computers. From a hardware perspective, they share more in common with mobile phones than PCs. Why, then, can’t we have the best of both worlds: the capabilities of a tablet computer, with the durability of some roughneck field phones? Niche products serving construction and military sectors have long existed, of course, with their giant, military-grade casings … but what of the average consumer? Some companies, like Pantech and Motorola, are asking the same question.
Pantech’s Element tablet, released earlier this year, takes the traditional approach to waterproofing, employing ports and buttons with sealable covers or gaskets to keep all water outside the device. As a result, it carries an “IP57″ (Ingress Protection 5/7) rating, indicating resistance to dust and capability of immersion in water up to 1 meter in depth for up to 30 minutes. Corning’s Gorilla Glass offers the display some protection from impact and shock. And this isn’t a hobbled, durable-but-useless product, either; with LTE and a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon onboard, it’s a respectable contender in the tablet community. It just happens to be able to take a dunk in your swimming pool without getting bent out of shape.
This is nice. It’s a hot day out there.
Taking a flashier approach, Motorola’s new XYBOARD 8.2 and 10.1 tablets use the same water-repelling feature found in the DROID RAZR: a thin nanocoating protects the device’s casing, ports, and even the internal components against water intrusion. While this is more splash-proofing than protection from real disasters like immersion, it’s absolutely a welcome addition. The best part: because there’s no bulky waterproof case or sealable ports, the devices maintain a svelte profile. Gorilla Glass can be found here, too, doing its part to save your display from spider-webbing after a fall to the pavement. This is the future of durability.
For when your drunk “friends” come over.
It’s great to see big-name companies like these using durability as a differentiator going forward. I do hope, though, that Pantech and Motorola are soon forced to find newer ways of setting themselves apart from the pack, because it would be wonderful to see features like splash- and dust-resistance become a standard, rather than a “bonus.” Tablets are, after all, carrying us into the future … and try as we might, it’s unlikely the future will be rid of rainstorms, gravity, or accidents involving full glasses of beer and electronics. Not for a while, anyway.