Are flexible phones really the future?

LG_DisplayHave you noticed how homogenous our smartphones are getting? The slab, block, or slate form factor dominates. They are all essentially just big touch screens. Where’s the innovation gone? Where are the exciting new designs to advance smartphones to the next level?

When we look past the world of wearable tech, from glasses to smart watches, we find an increasing buzz around the idea of a flexible smartphone. A number of big name manufacturers, like LG and Samsung, have been working on prototype designs for flexible displays and batteries. There’s even a suggestion that we’ll see flexible devices on the market by the end of the year, but do we want them?

Let’s take a look at some of the flexible technology on the horizon and then discuss the pros and cons of a bendy, foldable smartphone.

Flexible display prototypes

Several early flexible OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays have been shown off at trade shows in recent months. Samsung demonstrated its YOUM technology at the CES 2013 keynote, as you can see in this video.

LG showed off the “unbreakable and flexible 5- inch plastic OLED panel for mobile devices” at SID 2013 last week (pictured at the top of this article).

Both companies have also shown off much larger curved OLED TVs and we know that other companies, including Apple, Sony and Toshiba are working on flexible display technology.

What are the advantages?

These kinds of displays are virtually unbreakable. They don’t use glass, so there’s no shatter risk. They also enable manufacturers to make their displays incredibly slim. Flexible smartphones will be more comfortable in the pocket and much less prone to cracking or scratching. They are also much lighter than traditional displays, more energy efficient, and they emit less heat.

In terms of design, a flexible display would allow for much greater variety in the shapes and form factors of our smartphones. The display can be edge-to-edge, with no need for a bezel or border. It could even bend around a rigid device to display specific data on the edge, or provide touch sensitive controls, so that they don’t have to be accommodated on the main display. It would also open up new possibilities in the accessory market.

Eventually you could have a device that folds up into a very mobile size and shape, but can be unfolded, like a newspaper, to a tablet size. However, there are some obstacles to overcome before we get to that stage.

The obstacles

With smartphones, you may be able to create the flexible display, but what about the internal hardware and the battery? Early designs look like they have a flexible display attached to a solid unit of some kind that contains the rest of the hardware. The first wave of releases will certainly not be fully flexible devices and it may be some time before we move beyond that model, although, it is worth mentioning that LG is also working on flexible battery technology. It’s surely only a matter of time before the obstacles are overcome and we get fully flexible devices. How long that will take is pure guesswork right now.

This kind of development is also of great interest to the wearable technology scene because it could be used to incorporate batteries and displays into clothing, as well as watches and glasses. Maybe your battery pack will be accommodated into your jacket and devices like your smartphone or smart glasses will plug in, or even draw power wirelessly. You can see the potential, and that will drive manufacturers on to keep throwing research and development money at this.

When will we see them?

There is some confusion about this point. LG’s Mobile division Vice President, Yoon Bu-hyun, told the Wall Street Journal that they want to “Introduce a smartphone with a flexible OLED screen in the fourth quarter.” However, LG’s Mobile Vice President in the EU, Kim Wong, recently told Dutch website, All About Phones that the technology for flexible phones this year is “not yet mature enough”.

Samsung is apparently very keen to be the first to market with a flexible smartphone, so there’s still a chance that we’ll see one before the end of 2013. Of course, you have to expect teething troubles with the first release of any new technology, and it’s a safe bet that it will be prohibitively expensive for most of us when it first hits the market. It seems likely that it will be years before we see the potential of flexible devices fully realised, but rest assured they are coming.

Are you excited by the prospect? Would you be willing to pay a premium to get your hands on a flexible smartphone?

About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced tech writer with a background in games development. He has been covering the world of mobile technology for several years now and writes for a variety of popular websites.