By Simon McElrea, CEO, Semblant Inc.
I’ve spent my career working on solutions to people’s pain points with their mobile devices. Waterproofing technology is the latest in a history of challenges that I’ve been privileged to take on, and it’s proving to be the most rewarding, as it provides enormous value at every level of the supply chain, from manufacturers to consumers.
The first challenge we had to crack as we progressed beyond the classic Nokia phones of the late ’90s was how to cram all the computing power of a PC into the form factor of a phone. Miniaturization was no small matter, and the secret turned out to be semiconductor packaging—specifically 3D chip stacking and system-in-package technology—essentially the equivalent of building miniature skyscraper electronics within phones rather than creating urban sprawl. The result of all this effort came with the launch of the Motorola RAZR in late 2003—thin, powerful and pretty.
The next major consumer pain point was ease of use: a universal interface. With all this burgeoning computing power in our pocket, the ability to actually operate each new device, from a BlackBerry to a Samsung phone, was far too complicated. What was needed was the “rental car model,” where we never have to worry about the make or model we reserve; we just know we’ll be able to drive it when we get there. That’s what the iPhone did in 2007; it introduced the universal standard in operation—a simple touch-screen graphic interface that anyone could use. The iOS operating system and its cousin Android is the primary reason we sell almost 2 billion smartphones per year now: universal ease of use.
Not long after this pain point was solved, consumers started complaining about the amount of memory available on their phones due to the addition of simple digital camera technology, as we all wanted to store a never-ending supply of photos. In a sense, silicon memory technology was being driven by the desire to preserve real memories. This drove us to create high-capacity, low-cost Flash memory technology, along with “The Cloud”—the growth of which has been driven more by the desire to save family photos than any other commercial interest.
So now in 2016, there are only three mobile consumer anxieties left to address that are key differentiators in a world of increasing commoditization, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in all of them. One is battery life. Consumers want wireless charging, battery life that lasts forever—or at least recharges when we’re not paying attention. The second is SLR-like camera performance: quick aperture speeds, low-light performance, and slick editing software. The last and most significant is robustness: a smartphone that doesn’t break when dropped, spilled upon, submerged or simply “used” in our daily lives.
Smartphone damage, due mostly to liquid ingress (rain, coffee, beer, blood, sweat and tears of life), is the No. 1 remaining mobile anxiety, and the one that impacts not just the consumer, but the smartphone industry as a whole. Phones are very expensive, and consumer data shows that we no longer blame ourselves for these mishaps; we want our phones to be designed and made better. And with 25% of mobile devices being returned, repaired or replaced, the problem is costing the industry billions of dollars per year.
There are now a number of companies chasing this critical problem. At Semblant, we set out from Day 1 to design our solution to solve it, and it’s now being incorporated into over 1 million units daily. 2016 is the year that waterproofing of smartphones and other mobile devices will transition from an emerging need to a “must have” feature. It’s a very exciting inflection point, and it’s why I work in waterproofing.