Last year’s edition of the Consumer Electronics Show saw the introduction of the waterproof mobile phone. This year’s iteration of CES marks waterproofed gadgets’ sophomore year return, and for at least one company, the announcement of a new chemistry for the nanocoating that makes phones more waterproof than they were last year.
In a blog post last year, IEEE Spectrumeditor Tekla Perry suggested that a patent battle might be brewing between HzO and Liquipel, makers of the coatings that keep water out. But that intellectual property fight doesn’t seem to have materialized. The patent concerns stemmed from both Liquipel’s and HzO’s relationship with a company called Zagg, which sells and markets protective casings for mobile devices. HzO approached Zagg to help it market its nanocoating product. Later, executives from Zagg left the company to form Liquipel, which raised some suspicions.
From my cynical perspective, I suspected that Liquipel’s recently announced new chemistry was motivated by these patent infringement concerns. But an industry insider informed me that Liquipel’s new chemistry was more likely to have been driven by improving product features than any concerns over patents.
Both Liquipel (Santa Ana, Ca.) and HzO (Draper, Utah) may have been driven to step their respective games up by two other rivals in the market: Neverwet, based in Leola, Pa., and P2i Ltd. of Abingdon, UK. (It should be noted that P2i also has a U.S. subsidiary in Savannah, Ga., P2i Inc.) Each of these four players is looking to grab market share by demonstrating to gadget makers that its nanocoating is better and that its waterproofing process costs less.
The standard that all four of these companies are chasing is International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) 60529 IPX7, which calls for an electronic device to operate for at least 30 minutes after being immersed in at least 1 meter of water. Beyond IPX7 is IPX8; to meet that challenge, a device tested in depths beyond 1 meter would need to continue operating until presumably the battery ran out of power. At present, the IPX7 standard serves as an industry benchmark for testing nanocoatings on electronics.
Product capabilities notwithstanding, the real differentiating factor for all these companies is their business models. In this regard, Liquipel is unique among the four of them because its nanocoating is available to the consumer, while the others currently only sell their product directly to manufacturers. Tekla Perry referred to this difference in her most recent follow up with Liquipel at CES this year when the issue of warranty concerns was raised. Because Liquipel offers its product to anyone with a mobile phone, the possibility that someone’s phone, after having been treated with the coating, would no longer function has led to some warranty concerns. However, Liquipel’s Alex Hill says that these issues have never arisen.
While these four companies are duking it out for the market, Nokia—the world’s second-leading handheld device manufacturer behind only Samsung—is partnering with Cambridge University to develop its own waterproofing based on nanotechnology.
It should be interesting to watch how this nascent nanotechnology market develops, especially when one considers that just a few years ago no such market even existed.
This post has been edited since its initial publication to remove a sentence that said that Liquipel licensed its nanocoating from Europlasma NV, when, in fact, Liquipel only licensed nanocoating equipment from Europlasma.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.