Why the iPhone 7 could (and should!) be waterproof

Preventing water damage not only keeps customers happy, but benefits Apple itself.

iphone6s peek

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By this point, we know the pattern pretty well. Every year there’s a new iPhone, with a faster processor, better camera, and a few other new tricks up its sleeve. Every other year there’s a new form factor, with a (usually) lighter and thinner case, and some more significant changes.

Next year, if the pattern holds true, we’ll see an iPhone 7, again with that faster processor and better camera. But a new number generally signals a new flagship feature: the iPhone 4 had the Retina display; the iPhone 5 had a bigger display, LTE, and a Lightning port; the iPhone 6 had an even larger display and Apple Pay. So what’s the big selling point for the iPhone 7 going to be?

Here’s one possibility: waterproofing.

Waterproof in the pudding

Waterproofing electronic devices is hardly impossible. Aftermarket waterproof cases exist for cameras and phones, though they’re bulky and cumbersome—they’re fine if you want to go diving and take some pictures, but not so great to leave on all the time.

26 xperia z3 Sony Mobile

Sony actually had to tell people not to use its Xperia Z3 underwater. Wonder where they would have gotten that idea?

Several vendors, including Samsung, have developed waterproof phones, which range from water-repellant coatings to fully submersible devices that can withstand a certain amount of time underwater. (Challenges still remain, such as using the touchscreen while submersed.)

Apple too has—ahem—dipped its toe into waterproofing. The Apple Watch is water-resistant and has an “ingress protection” rating of IPX7, which means it can be immersed in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. Tim Cook has said that he showers with his watch on, and Developer Craig Hockenberry did a pretty thorough analysis of the Apple Watch’s water resistance and found that it lives up to its claims.

But that makes sense for a device that you’re going to wear on your person at all times. It’s a little less critical in the iPhone—but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful.

Liquid damages

Water and electric devices generally don’t mix, as we know. And now that we’re all carrying our smartphones everywhere, the chances of dropping one in a puddle, a pool, or even the toilet have increased drastically. Odds are it’ll happen to all of us at some point or another.

Xperia Z1

Raise your hand if you've heard that "plunk" sound and felt your heart just drop.

And water damage is a pain, because it’s not covered by Apple’s warranty. That’s great for Apple if you wind up buying a new phone, but not so great if you get annoyed and decide to go in a different direction—buying a cheaper Android phone until you can afford a new iPhone, for example.

It’s also not great for Apple because when you break your phone, through whatever means, and get a new one, Apple can take apart the old phone and either refurbish it, or use parts for repairs. While it’s possible that Apple can reuse at least parts of some water damaged phones, there are probably also a lot of parts that aren’t worth salvaging, depending on the level of damage.

The surprisingly waterproof iPhone 6s

As it turns out, Apple’s already made strides in protecting the iPhone from water damage. Anecdotal reports have suggested that accidentally dropping the iPhone 6s in liquid didn’t result in the expected damage, so iFixit dug deeper and concluded that Apple has already taken steps to improve the iPhone’s water resistance.

For one thing, a new gasket runs around the inside of the case to help keep water out. Moreover, all of the connectors on the logic board are sealed with silicone, to prevent them from shorting out. Apple even filed a patent on that technique early last year.

Just a couple generations ago, this much liquid on an iPhone would be cause for panic. But if patent filings are any indication, Apple is working on this problem.

There are a few places where further work is needed: the power and volume buttons, for example, and the speakers and headphone jack. But surprise! Apple’s filed a patent on waterproof buttons and, more recently, on waterproof ports.

This also might be why Apple has considered the radical decision of dropping the headphone jack from the next iPhone. After all, one less port means one less thing Apple has to worry about waterproofing. (I’m not convinced that’s worth the trade-offs, but it certainly might go into the calculus.)

The touchscreen remains the single biggest problem for having a phone that actually works with water, and it might not be one that Apple solves right away. But people will probably be mostly satisfied if their iPhones are protected against those accidental pool drops.

Water, water everywhere

As water-resistant as the iPhone 6s might be, Apple doesn’t mention it anywhere. For good reason too: There’s no need to encourage people to test out the water-resistance of their phones, nor to incur any false advertising claims when water damage actually does occur. Better to underpromise and overdeliver.

But given all the time and energy that Apple’s invested into waterproofing the iPhone, it seems clear that it has aspirations in that direction. So don’t be surprised when next year’s iPhone ad features droplets of water running over the surface of the phone, or the keynote highlights an Apple executive’s snorkeling trip to Hawaii, complete with underwater photos.

Me, I’m holding out for Phil Schiller in a dunk tank. A man can dream, right?

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