Water has long been the nemesis of cell phones. The 1996 Nokia model 638, a brick by today’s standards, did not react well to a dunking, and today’s smartphones are little better.
That is why reports that Apple Inc. has filed a patent application titled, “Methods for shielding electronic components from moisture” have generated so much interest. Apple, which filed the patent application in 2014, is a little behind the curve on this one, though, because several waterproof phones hit the market last year.
Several Xperia models from Sony Corp. are waterproof to one degree or another, beginning with the Xperia Z in 2013. A couple of models of the Galaxy S5 from Samsung are waterproof, and phones from Kyocera, HTC and Motorola also meet certain levels waterproof-ness, based on something called the Ingress Protection (IP) scale.
The IP scale includes two digits: the first refers to a device’s ability to protect against invasion by dust particles and the second refers to the device’s ability to withstand liquid. Higher digits are better. The waterproof Samsung S5 Active has a score of IP67. That means the device can be dunked in liquid of up to a meter in depth for as long as 30 minutes, and that no dust particles at all can get into the phone.
So what is Apple doing? The patent filing describes a hydrophobic coating that can be applied thinly enough to the interior components that it will not interfere with the charging port or other openings on the phone.
Waterproof phones have not been a big hit. Samsung does not list it as a feature on its new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge phones. Sony has not indicated for certain that waterproofing will be a feature of its upcoming Z4 phone.
Being behind the curve on timing may be more than made up for Apple’s notorious attention to detail. Unlike some of the other waterproof phones that have had to change their designs in order to accommodate waterproofing material, the very thin coating (between 1 and 10 microns) theoretically allows Apple to waterproof every iPhone without having to sacrifice the phone’s design.
Later Monday, Apple will launch its Apple Watch. CEO Tim Cook has already said that the device can be worn in the shower, making the Apple Watch at least water resistant, if not fully waterproof. The watch almost had to be at least water-resistant in order to be useful as a fitness monitor. We may hear more from Cook on how this feature will migrate from the Watch to other Apple devices like the iPhone.