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The Secret Shame of the Cracked iPhone

The owner of the phone with a shattered screen is one of society’s most disgraced citizens. Why do we care so deeply about these ever-ubiquitous possessions? And what does the damage say about us?

(Getty images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty images/Ringer illustration)

It was around the time of the third micro-sliver. When that crystalline shard appeared, I decided to fix my iPhone screen. The shattered phone, whose cracks had been slowly growing more spiderweb-like and acquiring new routes along the glass, was beginning to chip so badly that my thumb was occasionally left red and raw. When I ran my skin over the most deeply creviced areas, the minuscule slivers pulled away from the surface and became lodged, like splinters — surely a sign that it was time to do something about the screen.

It’d been this way for six months. A repairman named Bill is coming to fix it this morning.

“My side girl got a 5s with the screen cracked / Still hit me back right away, better not never hesitate,” Drake raps on “Portland,” a track from his latest release More Life. (Note: I live in Portland, run around with a cracked iPhone, and punctually return texts. Connect the dots at your leisure.) Apparently digital loyalty, no matter the state of a device, is appreciated only by Drake, because the rest of the world has given me nothing but grief over the state of my iPhone. What I thought was merely a minor blemish on an otherwise functional tool is more like a gaping wound to everyone else.

I polled Twitter recently after a rash of complaints about my phone, asking exactly how ashamed I should be of my shattered screen on a scale of 1 to 10. “11,” one friend said. “Ten billion,” known jerk David Pierce replied. Colleagues told me I was undatable as a grown adult with a job who walks around with a cracked iPhone. “I think everyone should always fix their screens unless you are in severe financial hardship,” Kate Knibbs said some months back. “To be rude, if I were single I would not date someone with a broken screen.” Speaking to my editor about writing this story, I expressed how confusing it was that my phone had become such a blight. His response: “I think as a tech editor, it’s a truly shameful act.” I found no allies.

This shame isn’t limited to colleagues and the internet; nearly everyone who sees my phone has something to say about it. Checking in for a doctor’s appointment last week, I had to show my insurance card — which I store on my phone — to the receptionist. When he got a look, he laughed and asked me to move around the image on the screen so he could see my policy number through the cracks. I received an insinuating “Oh wow” from a friend while she watched me zoom and move around an Instagram photo so I could properly view it from an unshattered area.

It appears this is a big deal — a deal breaker, even: People don’t want to date you if you have a cracked phone, and judging someone based on the state of the phone screen is the subject of various forum threads. Every time someone makes a remark about my phone or informs me that my screen is shattered (as if I had simply not noticed), I wonder, “Why does it matter?” I remember the first time I shattered the screen: It was the day after a friend’s house party — a party where I had dropped my phone in a toilet (a clean, water-filled-only toilet, mind you). After sitting in rice overnight, it worked perfectly the next day. I decided not to put the case back on it; at this point, what else could happen?

Turns out, something could happen. Getting out of my car the next morning, I picked my phone off the passenger seat, and out of my hand onto the curb it flew. It cracked. I didn’t care. The fact that it was still working perfectly after the last 24 hours I’d put it through made me proud. The case remained off from that point on, even as the chips and cracks accumulated.

The call to ditch the iPhone case has been around as long as the iPhone has — for many, it’s a style choice. “When you think about the average iPhone user, they love it for the aesthetics and the simplicity of the design,” says iCracked cofounder Anthony Martin. iCracked is a smartphone and tablet repair business that lets you schedule a time for someone to come to your house and repair your phone. (Yet another cog in the never-leave-your-house-for-anything industry. Bill, the man coming to my house to fix my phone, works for iCracked.)

“Personally, I don’t like experiencing a case because it’s bulky,” Martin says. “I’m not looking for a unique personal case to identify my personality. It’s like, ‘No, I bought this thousand-dollar phone because I think it looks good.’”

For many, the smartphone is the one true ring to their Gollum. And those who opt out of a case in favor of showing off their gadgets are more likely to suffer the consequences. Still, I’m failing to understand why this device — now more commonplace than ever, hardly representative of the magic and wonder it stirred in us back in 2007 — isn’t allowed to suffer any scars. Why is something that is increasingly ordinary also deemed increasingly precious? The answer, as it often is, is that it’s a numbers game.

“As smartphones become more and more adopted, globally, we see the frequencies of them breaking hasn’t changed. As the screens get bigger, too, you see more breaks occurring,” Martin says. “A third of customers will break their phone in the first 24 months, so the lifetime of their phone, since most people upgrade in the 18-to-24-month timeline. So if you run the numbers, it becomes a pretty significant market.”

Truly: SquareTrade, which offers smartphone protection plans, pointed me to some statistics they’ve collected in recent years. In 2014, the company found that iPhone damages have cost Americans $10.7 billion since they were introduced to the market. The survey inquired about various types of damage, but found that “the most common lasting damage for users is the now commonplace cracked screen. A quarter of iPhone owners have cracked a screen at some point, with 15 percent currently using an iPhone with a cracked screen.” ABI Research put the global revenues for mobile accessories at $81.5 billion in 2015 and forecast that it will grow to $101 billion by 2020. Within that market, ABI found protective cases are the top-growing category. “The thinness and lightness of a smartphone makes a protective case a necessity, and new features with cases, such as wireless charging and digital payment, will likewise drive the protective cases market,” ABI Research analyst Marina Lu wrote in the report. More people, more phones, more cracks — makes sense.

ABI research director David McQueen told me via email that the global market for smartphone cases will grow 13 percent this year, totaling 797 million units that will be sold in 2017. He also told me that the scratch-protector market will grow 9 percent, to 821 million units sold this year.

I asked McQueen if the growth is based on smartphone adoption rates or consumers wanting to protect expensive gadgets. “It’s probably a bit of both,” he said. “The move to phablets with larger screens also helped, as has the rise in purchase of unlocked devices.” He reasons that those who pay full retail price are more likely to take care of their phones, while owners of the unlocked, cheaper units may treat theirs with less care. McQueen says tweaks in design stimulate the accessories market — as does Apple’s Purchase Plan, which nets users a new iPhone every year.

It’s due to this racket (and laziness, and cheapness) that I stopped buying iPhone cases. I don’t upgrade my phone every time a new model is released, but I do so frequently enough that buying a case that will actually protect my phone would become an investment over time. Rarely do Apple’s new models share the same specs with the previous generation’s — other manufacturers’ upgrades even less so. These old cases and screen protectors are tossed out, as our formerly precious phones are traded in or sold on Craigslist like a decrepit couch. And the smartphone accessories market grows bigger and bigger yet.

iCracked’s Martin says there’s a seasonality to breaking phones, too. “August and September are the biggest months of the year — actually any time of the year when the sun is out, it increases,” he says. In fact, the day after the Fourth of July is iCracked’s biggest, busiest day of the year. “College students are the ones who keep their phones cracked the longest. You go on a college campus, you would run into multiple people in passing who have cracked screens.” Martin says he thinks it’s mostly the lack of disposable income that keeps the group from fixing their phones.

I have the ability to fix mine. I also have, I hope, better time-management skills and perhaps a bigger investment in how I present myself to the world. And yet, here I sit with a shattered phone that I am getting around to fixing only due to my sore thumb.

I want phones to become less and less precious; they’re necessary commodities, but nothing more; a crack shouldn’t compromise their usability or their life span. Sleek mobile phones are more than a decade old, but we haven’t yet reached the level of ubiquity that such damage earns little more than a shrug. Maybe eventually, we will, and the smartphone case and repairs markets will begin to see a slide. But not yet.

This morning, I sat at my kitchen table slurping coffee and gulping cereal while a pleasant man named Bill repaired my phone. He showed me where a couple of loose screws were slipping and told me there was a protective cover over the glass now, so should I drop it again, it won’t shatter so easily — and if it does, here’s his card and there’s a warranty, and it will get fixed right away. After the months of grief I’d experienced over this eyesore, I felt slightly embarrassed that Bill — who, as a job, makes sure phones look perfect — had to handle my disgraced device.

“I’ve left it that way for months,” I blurted. “I know, it’s really bad.”

Bill smiled. “That’s OK. When I’ve broken mine, I do the same thing.”

Finally, some compassion.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly relayed a 2014 statistic from SquareTrade. Americans spent $10.7 billion on iPhone damages, not on smartphone damages in general.