The iPhone 7 was released this week so it is a good time to talk about smartphones and the Broken Window Fallacy. We have talked about this concept in the past but we’ll modify the idea a bit and apply to the current state of smartphone design.
The Broken Window Fallacy was first explored by the French economist Bastiat. The original thought experiment involved a group of people deciding that the economy benefited when a pane of glass was smashed because it gave work to the glazier. It has been mentioned on this site before talking about flooding. In reality it is good for the glazier but not for the economy as a whole because using resources to fix the window would have been used in a more efficient manner. With the broken window you end up in the same state after the fixes as when you began but the tradesperson has made money. If you spend the money instead on curtains for the window then you end up with the window still existing, a tradesperson has still made money and you have the curtains.
So how does this apply to smartphones? Quite simply, smartphones are not designed correctly. That is, they are designed with form over function in mind. You have an expensive electronic device that you use for all manner of information retrieval and communication throughout the day but if you drop it from more than 2 feet off the ground, it is severely damaged. What was the first thing that popped into your head when you read the previous sentence? It likely involved something about a case. Not mine, I have a case or not if you put it in a case. The first time a consumer decided it was okay for a company to sell a expensive piece of gear that looked pretty on the internet and in ads but that needed to instantly be put in a big rubber case the moment you started using it we got a modern variation of the Broken Window Fallacy which we will call Design Flaw Industries.
Design Flaw Industries (DFI) are exactly what they sound like. The two examples we will use here are phone cases and phone screen repair services/shops.
Phone cases account for about 29% of all mobile phone accessory sales. It is estimated that the global accessory market will be about $50 billion this year. Screen protectors make up another 7%.
Squaretrade, a seller of smartphone insurance (which we can surely count as another DFI) says that since 2007 US consumers have spent $23.5 billion on phone screen repairs. On top of that, 15% of the iPhone users they surveyed currently had an un-repaired broken screen. You can see phone screen repair shops/kiosks in every major city. These are not repairs on things that wear out like you may experience on a TV, these shops almost always have a big sign that says something about being able to fix your broken screen.
So here we have a global industry based almost entirely on the fact that smartphones are designed poorly. Apple, at least, has moved to a metal back rather than glass but many companies still use glass. Even if it is the Gorilla glass kind(one of the all time great marketing jobs, it’s unbreakable). Samsung even made their phone MORE fragile with the wrap around screen on their Edge models. There are rugged phones of course but this should not be a niche category.
Keep in mind that we are not talking about accessories. Charge cables, headphones, etc., all make sense. What we are talking about here is something that could easily be improved at the design level. How about a phone that is made with a carbon fiber frame with a slight edge so even if you dropped in flat on its face it didn’t shatter the screen? Many would think carbon fiber looks cool but some people want to see the rose gold backing on their phone for the 8 minutes between when it comes out of the box and when it is put into a case that helps define them as a person.
So the designers are to blame but so are the consumers because they keep buying phones designed to look good and be fragile. They choose to put their money into an industry that really should not need to exist. This is not a perfect match to the Broken Window Fallacy but because of the billions of dollars spent on smartphone screen breaks and screen break prevention could be used on almost anything else that would be of greater benefit, Design Flaw Industries can at least be considered an economic cousin.