Hydrophobic nano-coating – how seriously should we be taking this?

Another year of CES; another demonstration of the holy grail of mobile phones – hydrophobic nano-coating.

The prospect that our mobile phones will one day survive total immersion in water is likely to get the attention of many users. Most have probably either had a “near-miss” in the bathroom, or worse, a fatal dunking at some time. Many users are nervous about using a phone in the rain for fear of it failing, and there are stories of early iPhone users branding their phones as “extremely sensitive to water” and to “beware of typical rain”.

So the announcements at CES by Liquipel, P2i and HzO were greeted with delight. But is it as straightforward as that? Is this really the holy grail, or is there a catch?DunkediPhone[Image courtesy of Crackbb.com]

How representative of real life is this?
A quick YouTube search reveals plenty of clips in which phones are used as a hammer to demonstrate how tough the (Corning Gorilla Glass) display window is, but at the same time there are plenty of users who have shattered their windows with an inadvertent drop from a modest height, without a hammer in sight. Will we see adverts for these coatings showing phones completely submerged in water? And if so, what sort of behaviour is that likely to encourage amongst users? Carelessness? Showing off (deliberate dunking)? I can see some unhappy consumers resulting from this.

According to the Liquipel Performance Guarantee announced at CES: “The coverage excludes intentional submerging of devices in liquid. However, everyday life events that can cause liquid damage will be covered, such as: rain, splashing, sweat, dropping in the sink or toilet and spilled drinks”.

Some possible concerns:

  1. The company says it is for brief, and inadvertent immersion, not intentional submerging – but where is the line between complete disgregard for care, and an “unintended dropping in the toilet”? That’s going to be a hard one to judge.
  2. The coating extremely thin and it wears off after a time. How long? And what does anything to speed or slow that process? Are there any indicators that it is wearing off? Indeed, how will we even know whether it is there or not?
  3. Two different services seem to be emerging. One is applied during manufacture, where the consumer is not involved. Another is an aftermarket service, where the consumer pays for the treatment either in-store (while you wait), or via a send-and-return service. Will they both be as efficacious? Will they even be compatible with each other?
  4. Will the warranty on the factory-applied coating continue to be valid when the device is sold onto the second-hand market?

It is interesting to note that three levels of protection have been defined in the Watersafe(TM) range from Level 1 (Spill & Splatter), through Level 2 (Slosh & Slip), to Level 3 (Dunk & Drench). I think I can see that Level 3 is pretty aggressive, but I’m not sure I can distinguish between Levels 1 and 2.

Maybe the best way of approaching this is with stealth, and by not shouting about it in the marketing material. The greatest delight from a user often comes when something unexpected happens. If my phone survives a fall, or works even after getting accidentally wet, I’m likely to be delighted. If it fails after dropping it into my beer in a pub to show my mates, I’m likely to have warranty problems, egg on my face and a broken phone. And I’m much more likely to drop it into my beer if the marketing people bombard me with pictures showing me just how to do that.

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