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Apple, LG, Samsung - The Next Golden Age of Curved Display Mobility
Wearable Tech World Feature Article
October 03, 2013

Apple, LG, Samsung - The Next Golden Age of Curved Display Mobility

By Tony Rizzo
TMCnet Senior Editor

Coming on the heels of our speculation yesterday day about curved screen iPad minis, both LG and Samsung (News - Alert) are now making a lot of noise about upcoming new smartphones that are likely to feature curved display screens as part of their design makeup. Both companies have long touted their curved plastic OLED displays, and we’ve seen plenty of demonstrations of them in action. Is it possible we are about to enter a new golden age for mobile devices?

These plastic displays are distinctly different than other curvy possibilities. Take Corning’s (News - Alert) Gorilla Glass, for example - Corning is now fully engaged in curved glass technology.

Now, as we move fully into the final quarter of 2013 and the year’s holiday buying season begins to get underway, the two South Korean companies appear to be set on throwing Apple (News - Alert) a curveball, so to speak, by introducing shipping smartphones with those plastic, curved displays. These would clearly launch ahead of any curved devices Apple itself may introduce, unless of course our iPad mini speculation pans out – in which case Apple will have tossed a knuckleball into the mix.

Before we go any further, we will note that we are not speaking here about smartphones that will actually bend, flex or otherwise be twistable. Perhaps you remember when glasses first began to tout titanium as a frame material (which Google (News - Alert) Glass happens to also sport), with the key demo being someone twisting the frames out of shape and having them magically return, completely undamaged, to their original shapes. That is not what we are talking about here.

Nor will we see screens that manage to unfold into screens much larger than their folded counterparts, or screens that roll up inside of a device and can be unfurled or unrolled into much larger screens. Interestingly, these are not ideas out of the realm of reality. In fact it is certainly possible for these sorts of display screens to become real over the next 18 to 24 months. But none of it will happen in 2013.

LG and Samsung are both simply referring to screen displays that will deliver a gentle curve and that will be attached to perhaps also curved, though otherwise completely rigid, smartphone cases. It is not completely clear yet what either company is likely to come out with.

That said, we can perhaps guess that the Samsung device – which may launch this month - will not have a curved case but will have a screen that creates a curve along the long sides of the display screen. This would create a potentially separate display area that could perhaps display a single static line of text or allow a scrolling ticker such as what appears at the bottom of many news stations. There would be a similar independent display area on the other side as well. Perhaps these would be programmable by the user to display different types of alerts or messages. Maybe.

The LG phone, which is supposedly being referred to by LG as the LG G Flex (we’ve also heard it called the LG Z), appears to us to be the more direct curved screen and body approach, which may or may not provide any actual sort of display improvements as far as we can tell but may make the device easier to hold to one’s ear. It may also make it less easy to place in one’s pocket. Or perhaps the case itself is articulated in some way so that it can be snapped into several different configurations while the screen itself curves to meet those configurations. That would be more in line with the “Flex” in the name. Maybe.

Rumors suggest that the smartphone will have a 6 inch display, and that the phone may be introduced as early as November 2013. Below is shown one possible configuration (courtesy of CNET), but the sketch is exactly that, a sketch that is utterly generic.

Both LG and Samsung demonstrated quite large curved screen TVs back in January at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES (News - Alert)). They are quite nice in their way and have the potential to provide a somewhat more immersive experience than non-curved screens. That of course doesn’t translate directly to what curved displays may mean for smartphones – or eventually for tablets. But it does demonstrate that curved displays are in fact finally on the horizon.

One key issue for these OLED displays is that their overall thinness and flexibility will make the smartphones themselves much lighter and far less prone to breaking or shattering. It’s essentially a tough plastic that forms the display, and it will have certain advantages relative to these issues. However, there is no accounting for the quality of the displays themselves as, well, displays. Will colors appear muted or pastel-like? Will vibrancy be lost in the name of light weight and sturdiness?

Will users find such tradeoffs well worth a potential loss of quality? In fact, we strongly suspect that there are a great many users out there who would truly love such a trade off. Eventually, of course, these displays will get brighter and will add back the vibrancy. Progress is inevitable on these fronts.

Wearable Technology and Curved Displays

If you’ve gotten a good look at the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, the truth of the matter is that it lacks any kind of design finesse or special aesthetic. We absolutely believe that Samsung cut numerous corners on the first iteration of the Gear simply to get it into the market ahead of Apple. What it lacks in our opinion that would instantly add a touch of something special is a curved screen.

We believe that we can more or less assume that any curved screen smartphones are simply preludes to curved screen smartwatches. Perhaps Samsung should have waited on the Gear introduction and delivered a curved Gear instead of a curved smartphone. Or perhaps the rumors that Samsung is already preparing to launch a version 2 of the Gear (possibly in time for CES 2014) will pan out and the surprise will be a highly legible curved screen.

If the Samsung and LG curved display smartphones do materialize, we will take them as harbingers of curved screen smartwatches. Curved screens will take smartwatches to the necessary next level of design. However, we are far from convinced that either Samsung or LG are the companies that will get us there. Nor should we rely on the “techie” smartwatch approaches – from the likes of say, Pebble.

This is particularly interesting to us for another reason – it underlies a key question on what will ultimately drive smartwatch acceptance on a large scale. Will it be the tech approach – which relies heavily on running apps, such as Pebble delivers on? Or will it come down to true design and fashion issues? If the latter, there is only one company we see pulling it off. That’s right – you know the answer as well.

Apple remains, of course, the real key, and we now know that Apple is ramping up all sorts of very interesting members for its wearable technology teams. Chief among them are designers, not technologists. However, Apple is already fully loaded with technologists. Apple, we anticipate, will be the company that delivers on the right mix of fashion, functionality and technology. Probably in early 2014. Maybe.

Regardless of who ends up taking the real lead in this hugely visible wearable tech market segment, it is clear that we are now truly entering the golden age of curved display mobility.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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