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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

9:41 AM 0

Two decades into the flat-panel era, consumer-electronics makers have decided it’s time to throw everyone a curve. The manifestation of this new-found obsession finds its latest incarnation in the Samsung Galaxy Round, a new jumbo smartphone/tablet hybrid that has a concave screen. The new 5.7-inch phablet is otherwise unremarkable, in part because despite what you’ll read in numerous articles around the web, the phone isn’t flexible. Instead, what has happened is the increasing prevalence of displays based on OLED technology has made it easier for manufacturers to free the screen from two dimensions. Thus far that freedom is a curiosity and little more, but it does presage an era of significant innovation in the coming years.
The new Galaxy Round is actually not Samsung’s first major curved-screen product. (That distinction belongs to the company’s 55-inch OLED TV, which displays a stunning picture offset only by its $9000 price. Samsung’s product competes with a similar set from LG that carries a similarly breathtaking price tag.) Samsung’s phablet will have some gimmick features that cause it to react when rolled on its axis or rocked with a finger. Otherwise, it should proved quite similar to the well-received high-end Galaxy Note 3. Anyone familiar with the rivalry between the two Korean electronics giants shouldn’t be surprised to learn that LG has its own curved phone coming soon as well. Like the Samsung, LG’s model is expected to be a phablet, carrying a 6-inch screen, with the name G Flex.
And, in fact, the underlying display technology can deliver on that promise of flexibility. Traditionally, flat panels have been manufactured on rigid glass sheets because of the high temperatures involved in making them. That’s made them inherently inflexible — and fragile. Multiple technological developments have changed the equation. First. OLEDs made on plastic backing sheets, or substrates, have become commonplace in smartphones. While OLED is just coming to television. it’s quite common in smartphones, especially those from Samsung. Second, in the near future, a new material from Corning GLW +1.12% will even allow for curved glass screens to become possible. Called Willow Glass, it’s super thin and forgiving like plastic. There are rumors Apple AAPL +0.63% might use the material for its smartwatch next year.
The technology to make these real has been shown only in the earliest prototype stages. LG made a point of announcing the availability of curved batteries something Samsung has also done. These are designed to follow the contours of the curved-screen phones each are releasing. But curved, again, has nothing to do with flexibility here, it’s just about following the concave shape.But it’s one thing to make a screen that will bend and another thing to make one that won’t break. Anyone who has actually shattered the expensive screen on their iPhone or Galaxy would be excited to learn such a screen would be available. Alas, it isn’t yet. Then there is the matter of the invisible, but critical, touchscreen layer that rests on top of the display. While several flexible screens have been demoed for the public, including at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, actually making a touchscreen layer that works reliably atop one of those has proved a trickier challenge. Realistically, though, that’s just the beginning. To make a truly flexible smartphone requires a flexible circuit board and a flexible battery, too.
Downsides apparent
The move away from flatness is bringing with it a set of negatives. Phones will no longer sit normally on a table and tracing across a curved screen with your finger or typing on one becomes more challenging. On the relatively large screens being offered by LG and Samsung, this might not be a small problem. While it might be true that the phone will contour more closely to one’s face and some pocket, it’s equally clear the shape will be more challenging to fit into some purses and cases.
Similar issues have cropped up with the OLED TVs. Even the relatively subtle curve has caused geometric distortion to become apparent from certain viewing angles. And, significantly, when viewing the sets from anywhere but directly in front of them, there is an odd effect of looking into a virtual cylinder from outside of it. It takes some getting used to and for many detracts from the experience. Significantly, few people are claiming it adds anything. In a poll of enthusiasts on the AVS Forum, half of respondents thought curved-screen TVs would be gone by next year, despite being brand new in 2013.
So what’s the purpose?
Given the lack of apparent upside, the question remains: Why bother? The answer has layers. Now that it’s possible, someone was going to do it. But in and of itself, “possible” isn’t a justification. Differentiation, however, is. For the televisions, the desire to stand out from the hundreds of LCD TVs has clearly been a motivator, especially given the cost of the OLED TVs. Current manufacturing yields make it impossible to price them competitively with LCDs, but the incremental cost of making them curved is limited to slightly higher handling costs in manufacturing and transportation. The result is a product that’s unique in a Best Buy BBY +2.49% and draws attention immediately. When a prospective customer then notices the picture quality, it’s possible they’ll be converted into believing its worth the price.
The same phenomenon seems unlikely to occur in smartphones but for some the desire to be different might be enough. As the customizable Moto X and colorful iPhone 5c show, there is at least some market for a smartphone that is not like everyone else’s. The curved phones will fill the bill for a while at least. They also have a halo role, conveying a future where the products are truly unbreakable and more flexible. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a phone with a screen twice as big that folds up like a wallet. A reliable screen that can withstand being bent 180 degrees over and over again is years away. So also is one that can roll up into a spool like a miniature projector screen.
These are wonderful theoretical technologies, though it’s still not entirely clear they solve real-world problems that existing devices don’t. The fact that today’s phones typically struggle to get through a day without a battery charge also points out that miniaturizing the physical device we carry faces limitations based on physics that won’t easily be overcome. But the curved screens you’ll start to see absolutely presage an era where a dropped phone is far less likely to result in anything shattering. And that’s a breakthrough most all of us will welcome.