The billion-dollar handset market you probably never heard of.
I always wanted to have a job in one of those reliability test labs where the name of the game is finding out just how much punishment the product can take and still keep working. Admit it, it fascinates you, too. As fun as it is to make things for a living, it might also be a heck of a lot of fun to go to work and break things. After all, imagine how therapeutic it would be. Get stuck in a 45-minute traffic jam en route to work? The first thing you do after you walk through the door is fling a bunch of handsets at the wall (less precise but infinitely more satisfying than a standard impact test). Spend too much time on hold with tech support while listening to a Muzak version of Justin Bieber's Baby (or listening to the real thing while driving your daughter and her girlfriends to school in said traffic jam)? Stick a phone in the oven for a little hard bake action while chanting, "Burn, evil spawn, burn."
I really think I'm onto something here.
The reality is, today's handsets have been crafted to endure an enormous amount of punishment and keep working. Five or six years back, I had a handset with the world's worst programming. I wanted it to die so that I could justify getting another one. Unfortunately, the designers had done their job too well. It survived being dropped (how did that happen?), dropped again (how did that happen…again?), and again (I'm so clumsy), baptized in orange juice (not my doing), and set on the range top under the heat exhaust that was hot enough to melt plastic (okay, maybe my doing). I've discovered through unintentional data-gathering that even smart phones with glass faceplates can withstand being dropped, thanks to Gorilla Glass.
Check out this video tour of the Nokia test labs.
All of this left me quite surprised to see that the U.S. market for cell phone repair grew almost 11% over the last year alone to reach $1 billion. That's right, $1 billion. According to IBISworld, the number of repair shops has grown on average 6.8% annually since 2012 to reach a total of more than 2,400. That's a lot of repair shops, given that cheap electronics and our culture of disposability have made the classical small-appliance repair shop go the way of the dodo. But when there's a need, a solution springs up. In this case, the trend is driven primarily by smartphones, which currently still cost enough that consumers tend to think twice about pitching them and buying another rather than, say, getting a new battery installed.
Technology developments promise to slow the growth somewhat. After all, with the launch of 4S and the scent of 5S on the breeze, paying a bit more money to get a new handset and jump to the next level becomes steadily more appealing than repairing the old technology. I am as prey to it as anyone else—my husband just got a 4S phone and I'm already catching myself looking at my 3S binky and wondering why it can't do all the things his can do. Still, don't expect the repair trend to reverse immediately. The report calls for 4.9% growth per year through 2017 to reach a robust $1.5 billion.
So if you're electing to get your battery changed or the glass repaired on your phone for financial reasons or just to remain green, you're in good company. If you're being lured away by the siren song of 4S, you're in good company too. In the latter case, consider donating your old phone to charity. As our feature on temporary wireless networks for disaster recovery shows, donated phones can save lives.
So what about it folks? Will you get your phone repaired when it starts having troubles, or will you jump to a new one?
I was impressed to see one of our techs fixing a broken iPhone switch using parts bought from Ebay. A complete subassembly, flexi PCB and all, swapped in. So I can see how little shops can get involved.
It was the boss' phone, of course!
I think that as cell phones become even more sophisticated and more integral to our daily personal & business lives, the repair business will continue to grow.
I had my shiny new iPhone 4s for barely a month when I dropped it, glass side down, on an irregular surface and it suffered a thousand cracks -- but still worked! I immediately jumped on Safari, did a search for "iPhone 4s repair Tempe Arizona" and found a repair shop nearby (yes, I could still read the screen through the cracks). 15 minutes later I was handing my phone to a young guy who said it would take him about 30 minutes to replace the LCD touchscreen assembly.
I went for a bite to eat, came back and paid him, and my phone was good as new -- less than an hour after I shattered the screen.
To your question about repairing vs. jumping to a new phone, well in my case this WAS the new phone. I actually have insurance on it, but that requires paying a deductible and waiting for a new one to arrive by snail mail. To me it was worth a few extra bucks to pay for the repair and have my phone back in perfect condition right away.
Looking toward the near future, if I break it again after the iPhone 5 comes out, will I pay for another repair or shell out the full retail price for an unsubsidized iPhone 5? That's a no-brainer. The repair is fairly cheap and the full retail price of a new iPhone? Not so cheap.
The better question is what will the proliferation of cell phone repair shops do to the cell phone insurance business. I clearly wasted my money on insurance for this one, since I would rather not wait for snail mail delivery of a replacement. If I break it again, I'll just go enjoy another burger & beer on Mill Avenue in Tempe while that college kid fixes my phone again :)
On the 4s, it's not just glass but a full LCD touchscreen replacement, which was $125 parts & labor. I found DIY kits online for around $80 but didn't want to mess with that -- I wanted it fixed quickly, by someone who had experience.
Re: "I clearly wasted my money on insurance for this one, since I would rather not wait for snail mail delivery of a replacement."
I wonder if you could contact your cell phone insurance company, explain the situation and maybe get reimbursed or at least a partial reimbursement...
It might be worth the call.
If I had gone with AppleCare, that would've covered touchscreen replacement. I guess when I bought a different insurance policy, I was concerned more about loss or theft rather than damage -- and this policy only covers full replacement.
Like any other insurance, this policy will only be worth the money if someday I actually need it. If my iPhone is lost or stolen within the 2 year contract period, I will have to pay the deductible and wait for a new phone in the mail, but the policy will have been worth the money.
I am surprised to see that the cell phone repair grew 11% this year in US. The culture has largely been to throw away the broken ones and get a new unit. But I agree with @Frank Eory above, fixing beats new iPhones by big margins, not to mention the educational value of doing so.
How about a USB mini connector that unscrewed from the side of the phone so it can be replaced.
Other than a dropped phone breakage, this is the first thing to fail (minus the battery).
This sees constant abuse with 100's to 1000's of plug/unplug cycles.