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?