iphone-glassMuch of the talk surrounding the iPhone 5 concerns LTE radios, a bigger screen and faster processors. Those are great additions, there is something else that could be added to the phone that could be even more practical.

Smartphones are an investment, and we take many steps to ensure that the investment is protected. External cases shroud beautiful devices, but ironically leave the most important – and most delicate – surface vulnerable.

Undisputedly, the most important part of any phone is the screen. While a crack on the back housing of a device may be upsetting, a crack in the screenotterbox-camo can make that several hundred dollar investment unusable. But why should it be that way?

The iPhone is a perfect example. Two sides, two panes of glass. However, replacing either requires vastly differing degrees of skill. The cost to replace each also highlights the problem. Generally, you might spend $30 for the back pane, $200 for the front pane. What adds to the cost? A higher quality glass? Greed? No, it’s work, and the nature of the front panel itself.

First, the work. According to iFixit, replacing the glass back of an iPhone can be done in three simple steps. The amount of steps that go into replacing the front pane? 38. And that’s only one way. It is not just a lot of work, it’s an arduous, meticulous task. After digging through all the sensitive components such as the logic board, camera, and antennas, you have to piece the whole thing back together.

Part of the problem is that you are replacing more than just the glass. The LCD of the iPhone 4 and 4s is actually laminated to the glass. This little trick eliminates the cavernous space between the display and the glass, making it appear as if the finger is directly interacting with the pixels, like they’re sitting on top of the glass. But if that glass ever breaks, that magical laminate is going to force the replacement of not just the glass, but of the entire display assembly.

The problem reveals the dichotomy of many great phones. Aside from the glass, the iPhone itself is relatively durable. Aside from shattered aesthetics, the internals of the phone can survive quite a pounding. Unfortunately, a phone is only as strong as its weakest link, and the achilles heel(s) of the iPhone requires us to delicately handle it as if it were a piece of china.

The untrusting side of me would like to blame corporate nature of trying to squeeze consumers dry for all they’re worth, but the rational side of me is inclined to think that the culprit is design. The trend toward minimalism is not just taken by Apple. Value is assigned to phones that are as simple as possible, and that is a mistake.

Having a mechanism to make the front glass panel, or entire display assembly, readily replaceable may add a few screws, or require the reengineering of other parts of the phone, but the value that is added from a replaceable screen is immense. The ability to have the guarantee of a scratch-free screen for the entire existence of the phone is a huge bonus, not to mention the ease and affordability of doing it yourself. No more scratches, no more shattered screens, no more heartbreak.

It’s time that the design of phones takes a back seat to practicality, and easily repairable display glass is a great place to start.