Photo by Shubham Bombarde on Unsplash
I’ll never forget the look on the young man’s face as he handed me his waterlogged phone. It was a brand new flagship device, barely six months old, and it had all the functionality of a brick. Even less, in fact, since he couldn’t build much with a broken phone.
He’d gone out on his Jet Ski and put his phone in the glove box—where it sloshed around in water for a couple of hours while he cruised the lake. His confusion was clear. His phone was waterproof, wasn’t it?
Now, before you dismiss his naïveté as a rare case, I can guarantee you it’s not. I’ve met middle-aged couples who went scuba diving on vacation and used their phone for underwater photography (no, not in a waterproof pouch).
I’ve seen countless tablets thrown or smashed into oblivion by toddlers. And nearly every day during my tech career brought the inevitable cracked screen or two—along with owners who couldn’t understand why dropping their phone down a set of stairs might result in some broken glass.
But here’s the thing we seem to forget: our modern devices are incredibly complex machines made of some of the smallest, most delicate components around.
Your phone or tablet contains GPS sensors, vibration motors, and camera lenses. It might have a compass and accelerometer. There’s an ambient-light sensor, a capacitive (or maybe infrared) sensor for biometrics. It might even have a LiDAR sensor and a magnetometer.
And that touchscreen? It’s a tiny marvel of technology, a piece of glass embedded with a conductive grid, each filament holding an electric charge. When that charge is disturbed by your finger, your device instantly knows the precise location and pressure and performs the action you want.
So how come we tend to treat these complex, and expensive, gadgets like they’re as sturdy as a two-by-four? Why do we drop them, toss them, take them swimming, and bake them in a phone holder on our dashboard, the sun beating down through the windshield?
Part of it, I think, is that they’ve become so familiar. They’re just another common item, no more special than the phone books and calculators they’ve replaced.
Familiarity also helps explain why most of us would never think of handling a DSLR or camcorder as casually as the camera in our smartphone. The smartphone’s in our hand every day. The DSLR or camcorder only gets used for a specific purpose and then put away.
The other issue is the way tech companies promote their mobile devices. From Apple to Samsung and beyond, they use words like forged, tough, and armour. It conjures up visions of hammers clanging on anvils. But you’ll need to read the fine print to discover that your phone’s water and dust resistance can diminish over time simply due to normal use.
To be sure, our smartphones are incredibly durable for what they are: intricate electronic devices surrounded front and back by glass. We certainly don’t need to handle them with kid gloves.
But next time you perch your phone on the edge of a counter, spare a thought for the complex sensors and processors inside the case. And remember that there’s no such thing as an indestructible device.