Then came the iPhone. All of a sudden, the candy bar was back. Since then, the market for high-end, touch-screen phones has seen double-digit growth while the rest of the industry has stagnated. Generally speaking, the new products are more expensive, more useful, and more exposed than any phones that have come before. They also demand a new generation of accessories. If the iPhone redefined the mobile platform, the silicone-rubber iPhone shield redefined the carrying case.
I should pause here, in this history of cell phone armor, to make the following confession: For more than a year, I've carried an unadorned 16GB iPhone 3G in the back pocket of my jeans—whenever I sit down, it's between my ass and my chair. It never occurred to me to wrap the thing in rubber or titanium; I never drop my phone, nor do I mind the scuffs and hairlines that show up, from time to time, on its white plastic base. But now, in the midst of researching and writing this article, a full-blown crack has inexplicably appeared on the face of my touch screen. It's 1.5 inches long and runs diagonally from the edge of the speaker slot to the bottom of the volume controls on the left. I swear it happened on its own—an act of God or karmic payback—while the phone was nestled safely in my pocket over the weekend.
As of Sunday afternoon at about 2:15 p.m., I'd planned to conclude this column by saying that cell phone cases aren't worth the money. Now I'm not so sure: This crack is pretty annoying.
It seems that there are no universal laws of cell phone breakage. Some people bounce their phones off concrete sidewalks with no ill effects. Others manage to shatter an iPhone with one gentle drop. Buying a protective sheath seems a bit like getting a not-so-comprehensive insurance plan. If it makes you feel better, go ahead, but your phone could very well break in your pocket for no apparent reason.
Rather than recommend that we all go out and buy the OtterBox Defender, I've got a better plan: Let's buy gadgets that don't need any armor. I want my next phone to be one that's built to survive 15 months in my back pocket—and a few dunks in the john. They say you can't build a whole airplane out of the black box. But that's not true for cell phones.
"Rugged" phones have been around for at least a decade. (Remember those rubberized, yellow-and-gray Nextel phones for construction workers?) Now there's a thriving niche market for gadgets that meet the super-tough standards of "military specification 810F." These may not have all the bells and whistles of the latest smartphones, but they are compact, powerful devices that won't crack open when they fall out of your purse.
I might choose the low-end Samsung Convoy (available for $49.99) or the full-keyboard G'zOne Brigade. You don't need to get stuck with an ungainly brick, either. The waterproof, GPS-enabled Sonim Land Rover S1 weighs less than the Motorola Droid. And did I mention that it's impervious to salt, fog, humidity, and petroleum oil?