Just when you think a smartphone cannot get any better, it does! We can find just about everything in a smartphone: retina displays, laser keyboards, hand gestures, inbuilt projectors and now… flexible displays. Michael wrote about this as one of the future smartphone features in a post a year ago, and today you can actually hold a flexible display smartphone in your hand.
A few tech giants have released their take on curved smartphones. Last month, Samsung became the first company to launch the world’s first flexible OLED display smartphone – Samsung Galaxy Round.
In the same month, LG followed suit with its very own version, the LG G Flex, which on top of being touted the world’s first "real" curved smartphone, also has a unique self-healing capability you have to see to believe.
There’s a catch. Both recently released flexible display phones are "curved" in design but don’t actually ‘flex at will’. Without the ability to bend and fold, how can they be considered flexible then?
In a literal sense, the word "display" refers to everything you see on the screen and navigate on. However in technical terms, the "display" actually refers to the electronic substances placed under the glass and plastic cover, the parts that act as the sensors.
Hence, flexible displays here refers to the organic light-emitting diode (OLED), which is made of flexible materials like plastic instead of traditional glass. The main feature of an OLED is that it produces its own light, so it doesn’t require the thick, heavy backlight that makes LCDs inflexible.
Why the need for Flexible Phones?
This is a question that many (dumbfounded) users ask and an issue hotly debated in the comments section of tech sites and forums. "Why do you need a flexible phone?" Here are three possible reasons:
- Better Durability – Since flexible displays employ OLEDs made out of plastic, they provide more durability as compared to traditional glass displays. In other words, this reduces the chances of your smartphone display being smashed to smithereens when you drop it.
- Lighter Weight – Did you know that plastic is lighter than glass? The atomic composition of plastic makes it relatively lighter in mass than glass of equal size. Plastic OLEDs can make the devices lighter.
- Thinner Dimensions – Flexible displays can allow smartphone devices to be manufactured with thinner dimensions and in shapes different than the conventional rectangular screen.
Barriers in Building Flexible Phones
That said, it takes more than a flexible display to make a flexible phone. There are still a lot of technological and hardware barriers that are hindering manufacturers from designing a truly bendable or rollable smartphone.
Samsung in its ‘Analyst Day 2013’ event, revealed its plans for new devices in the near future. The illustration below outlines the plans: "curved" displays in 2013, "bended" displays next year and lastly foldable screens by 2016.
Samsung also revealed the ‘technology barriers’ that are to be surpassed in order to make foldable devices a reality. Let’s take a brief look at these technological barriers one by one.
1. Memory Scaling
Memory scaling has become difficult because recent trends in systems, applications and technology are worsening the memory system bottleneck problem. On the architectural front, energy and power consumption are the main design limiters. It is costly to scale the memory further. Newer solutions/structures of memory must be figured out to provide more flexibility to the devices.
2. Battery Rigidity Barrier
One of the most evident hurdles that smartphone manufacturers are facing is its battery design, which is unyieldingly rigid in nature. Conventional lithium ion batteries, which power today’s smartphones, are organically straight in shape don’t have a flexible alternative. Until that malleable component is found and can produce usable batteries, truly flexible phones may remain a distinct reality.
3. Circuitry Inflexibility Barrier
Similar to the battery conundrum, and almost as critical is the circuitry involved. The board on which other components fit is made of silicon which doesn’t allow for much flexibility. The challenge for manufacturers is to come up with low-cost organic alternatives to replace traditional silicon circuits.
4. Weatherproofing Barrier
Organic Light Emitting Display (OLED) is extremely sensitive to oxygen, moisture and water. The challenge for manufacturers to keep a flexible OLED display sealed off from the corrosive atmosphere while allowing it to flex is a tricky proposition.
5. Power Consumption Barrier
Since the OLED display medium requires more current as compared to the traditional liquid crystal medium, it creates a great amount of strain on the TFT circuits that drive the display media. Smartphone manufacturers will have to find smarter solutions for making the devices work with less power consumption.
Forecast of Flexible Display Market
The future of flexible display market is extremely bright, provided the mentioned hurdles are overcome by tech companies. In a recently published report by IHS on the flexible display market, it is estimated that the flexible display market will grow to $1.1 billion in 2015 and will continue to develop at an outrageous rate of 226% to $42 billion by the end of 2020.
Even though flexible display smartphones have not yet achieved the desired potential, it is certain that they will soon capture the market by storm. It is estimated that total shipments of displays will reach the 6 billion mark by 2020 with global shipments of flexible displays soaring to 792 million units. This means that in 2020, flexible display market will have captured 13% of the total display market.
The Future is ‘Flexible’
Regardless of what we make of this, the next generation of smartphones is here… and is probably here to stay for good. The flexible display technology is not going to be restricted to smartphones only. Provided the manufacturers overcome the technological and hardware barriers, this technology will definitely shift to other gadgets likes tablets, notebooks, watches and even TVs.
Imagine having the power to just fold or roll away your household appliances. Now wouldn’t that be exciting?
We can’t wait to see what is next in store for us in terms of flexible display technology. All in all, the next few years promise to be very exciting. The question here for us is: are you ready to handle the next generation of smartphones? Will you be willing to upgrade your smartphone with a bendable or rollable one in the near future?