LAS VEGAS—You didn't have to walk very far on the showfloor at CES 2013 before you ran into someone who wanted to do some very serious damage to your smartphone.
Tech21 was ready to take a mallet to your phone. At the G-Form booth, death by bowling ball was the order of the day. And steer clear of the Invisible Phone Guard booth unless you've always wanted to see a phone used as a makeshift cutting board.
Protection was very much on the mind of CES exhibitors this year—and not just when it comes to cases. (Though as always, plenty of vendors could be found hawking assorted sleeves, snapcases, and other gear for stashing your smartphone.) Instead, third-party suppliers and even a few device makers want to make your devices more durable before they ever wind up in your hands.
"Handheld electronics have become such an integral part for everyone," said Felipe Pimineto of Drywired, which was showing off its nano-coating technology to protect mobile devices from accidents and spills. "Anything one can do to protect these devices, it's worth looking into." That meant companies like DryWired, Liquipel, and several others could be found around CES showcase technology that protects phones, tablets, and other gadgets from water damage.
Companies who weren't focusing on fighting off water damage instead spent CES trying to make devices more scratch-resistant. Corning took the wraps off a new version of Gorilla Glass—the second consecutive CES where the glass supplier has rolled out an update to the glass used in smartphones and tablets. This version boasts a three-times improvement in the amount of force required to make a crack. Gorilla Glass 3 also reduces the visibility of scratches and reduces the amount of residual stress throughout the glass. That makes the overall screen less likely to shatter the next time your phone or tablet absorbs a blow.
Device makers got into act as well with the torture tests. When showing off Huawei's Ascend Mate smartphone, the CEO of the company's consumer business group dumped a pitcher on top of it to highlight how water-resistant the new phone is. Similarly, Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai made specific mention of Xperia Z's ability to withstand a 30-minute dip in water after unveiling that phone. The Sony booth included a few fish bowls with submerged Xperia Z models.
Why the sudden focus on making mobile devices more durable? Because there are more of them out there in the hands of more people. A survey last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project contends that nearly half of American adults own a smartphone; that same group says a quarter of American adults own a tablet of some sort.
Mobile devices are not just more prevalent, they're also more sophisticated, says Paul Beaulieu, vice president of the sapphire materials group for materials and equipment provider GT Advanced Technologies. "Certainly one of the trends in mobile devices is that they're thinner, lighter, and more widespread," Beaulieu said. "All of those things contribute to higher breakage rates, given current materials."
That doesn't sound too appealing to device owners who, after dropping a couple hundred dollars on a smartphone—or more on one of Apple's tablets—would like to see their investment withstand an accidental plunge into a puddle or some excessive scratching from some stray grains of sand and grit. And that provides an opportunity for device makers to stand out from their competitors.
"A lot of [device makers] are looking for differentiation," said Beaulieu. More durable devices is one way to pull that off.
It makes sense when you think about. Processor specs don't really resonate with the average phone shopper, and there's only so much you can do to bolster the built-in cameras on smartphones. But make a device that's more impervious to water, dust, and damage than what your rivals can offer? That's a great way to grab everyone's attention—even on a showfloor as crowded as the one at CES.