Samsung Galaxy S5 gets waterproof: should iPhone do the same?

Samsung's forthcoming Galaxy S5 was announced at Mobile World Congress this week and rightfully garnered a lot of attention — it's Samsung's next flagship smartphone. Among the new features one jumped out at me as something I'd love to see Apple add to iPhone 6: waterproofing. Yeah, that's right, waterproofing. Think I'm crazy? Hear me out.

Now, in fairness, Samsung's not breaking any new ground here with a waterproof phone. Sony's had a waterproof Xperia smartphone out for a while (and they just introduced a followup too). Kyocera's Hydro handsets can handle water, and Samsung's own Galaxy 4 Active did that last year as well. So I'll say right up front that I don't think waterproofing is a "killer feature the iPhone 6 must have to succeed" or any of that nonsense. But I do think there's a strong use case for it.

All those devices are trying to stake a claim in the incredibly large and sometimes poorly-differentiated Android smartphone market, where having a feature like waterproofing might appeal to a large enough swath of customers to make it worthwhile for the manufacturer to produce a model. That's not a good reason for Apple to follow suit. It's the way people use iPhones now that make a good case for waterproofing the next iPhone.

Poor alternatives for iPhone owners

To make their expensive smartphone water-resistant or waterproof, current iPhone owners have to spend a lot of money and they have to significantly bulk up their device with a case.

You'd think that the iPhone 5s, with its Apple M7, is the ideal smartphone to take with you for any sort of sporting activity — apps to take advantage of the built-in movement processing ability appeared soon after the iPhone 5s was introduced. And certainly a lot of people do use activity apps (like Nike's Nike+ Move app). But using those apps with your iPhone outside a waterproof case is not an ideal situation.

It's a really good idea to have the iPhone away from your sweat, for example, either inside a case that's moisture-proof or somewhere else on your person where it's unlikely to get moist. That means sealing it off inside some sort of waterproof case or compartment.

And if you're into activities involving water, it's definitely a good idea to get some sort of waterproof case for your iPhone: Winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, for example, or even just sledding down a hill, or summer sports like boating, swimming, or going to the pool or the beach.

Not just for jocks

Sports and outdoor activities only tell part of the story, too. SquareTrade, the warranty protection service for electronic devices, says that liquid accidents are the second most common source of iPhone damage (behind dropping it and smashing the glass). What's more, accidents most frequently happen in the kitchen (dropping your phone into a pot on the stove, for example, or into a water-filled sink).

I work at an Apple retailer on the weekends, and we do a brisk business in waterproof cases made by Lifeproof (now owned by Otter). Lifeproof has differentiated itself by producing attractive, comparatively slim cases that are dirtproof, shockproof, and submersible up to about two meters.

If you're snorkeling or diving with your iPhone, you're going to want something a little more elaborate than the Lifeproof case. But if you're just going to spend the day at the beach, are worried about accidentally dropping your phone in the toilet, or just can't live without taking your iPad in the shower with you, it's just the thing.

Lifeproof cases aren't just curiosities. They're among our best selling cases. We sell many cases for half or even a fraction of the price of the Lifeproof cases, but we move more of them than almost anything else.

Based on this buying pattern, it may not surprise you to know that I live in a seaside community. We do a brisk year-round trade in waterproof cases. Our business in waterproof cases spikes in the summertime when we have tourists and seasonal residents visiting who plan a day out on the water and want to make sure they won't ruin their phone.

But we sell waterproof cases year round — even now, in late winter, waterproof cases are among our best selling products. Some of the people buying these cases are either mariners by trade — fishermen, merchant mariners and the like — but many are moms and dads who are replacing phones for kids that have been dropped in the rain or snow or suffered some other liquid calamity (accidents involving sodas and other beverages are sadly common), contractors who work outside and may be exposed to the elements, and others.

Making the iPhone waterproof

If Sony and Samsung's offerings are anything to go with, Apple could produce an iPhone that's water resistant to about three feet for 30 minutes and still keep it outside of a discrete case. (Sealing open ports like the Lightning connector and the headphone jack would be important.)

The goal here wouldn't be to make an iPhone that you could take with you into the water, per se, but instead an iPhone that could tolerate occasional spills or quick dunks without completely frying. Something that you could keep in your pocket in a heavy downpour and not have to worry about shorting out. (That's the difference between water resistant and waterproof.)

You can do this now. A few companies offer treatment services to make your device less likely to get water damage, though they'll typically tell you that you shouldn't go immersing your iPhone in water for extended periods, or perhaps at all. They're designed for people who might get their device occasionally wet and are just looking for better water resistance.

For everyone else looking for serious water resistance — runners, boaters, swimmers, divers — an actual waterproof case would still work out the best, but this would get the iPhone at least part of the way there, and would help cut down on the number of water damage repairs that iPhone users now produce.

Would being water resistant or waterproof be a selling point for a new iPhone? Or is it a ridiculous option that Apple shouldn't even consider?

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