May 18, 2012
Lately, Samsung -- and, not so lately, a host of other electronics manufacturers -- have been flexing their
muscles digital displays in a sci-fi-inspired attempt at shaping the future. Unfortunately, the tech's a functional gimmick; barring a series of unlikely and illogical "advancements," we'll never see anything like this bendable iPhone hit the consumer market.
While mobile mockups with these flexible screens always pack a good bit of pop, they're complete nonsense every time. Beyond the progressively counterintuitive nature of the idea itself, there are several technical limitations to consider.
There's a lot more to smartphones and tablets than just a display. Sure, the screen's an important, visible aspect of any mobile device, but it's far from the only important component. And in the real world, circuit boards, processors, and batteries don't bend. Not yet, at least. And not any time soon, either.
But even if such technology actually existed en masse, what possible practical reason would Apple have to include it in future iPhones or iPads? Another brand might try to make waves with a bendable device in some last-ditch effort to poach Cupertino's hundreds of millions of (largely satisfied) customers, but remember: Apple doesn't think different just for the sake of different.
And that's all a bendable display will ever be.
Think about it: Why do people actually want bendable displays, anyways?
You can trace the idea's origins back many dozens of years, as concept designers and so-called industrial futurists have been chasing down the dream of foldable, flexible electronic "newspapers" -- screens that combine dynamic image capabilities with newspaper-like physical attributes. But that's backwards thinking, especially in this day and age. Newspapers are not an inherently convenient or ergonomic way to share or consume information; they exist because print on paper was (and still is) a fast, cheap, and -- most importantly -- disposable commodity. They're a bottom-dollar means to an end, not a lofty target for tech perfection.
Beyond the flawed metaphor, what possible benefit could bendable display-based mobile devices provide? Curved screens? We've got those, and they're nothing special. Foldable portability, then? Well, "foldable" and "flexible" mean very different things, and screens capable of the latter aren't close to meeting the taxing, invisible-seam standards of the former. If you're looking forward to something along the lines of a smartphone that "unfolds" into a tablet (and vice versa), consider the dimensional realities: Facing a minimum tablet-mode thickness of around five millimeters (which is probably too thin to be comfortably held considering the iPad 2's sharpish 8.8 millimeters), you'd be holding a veritable brick once the thing's folded over a few times for phone mode. I don't know about you, but a handset more than twice (or thrice!) the thickness of the iPhone 4S isn't exactly compelling. Plus, if you really look at the landscape, people don't seem to have an issue toting around the current iPhone, and iPads fit just fine in backpacks, briefcases, totes, and purses. Even a roll-up tablet wouldn't be appreciably easier to carry around than the flat rectangles we've already got.
So what's left? Durability? Yes, flexible screens are potentially more durable in certain impact scenarios than the screens currently used throughout the industry. Of course, unless flexible screens are also of inherently better image quality and markedly cheaper to produce than traditional alternatives (they're neither), it won't matter. The real cons outweigh the theoretical pro. And a flexible screen packed in an otherwise rigid frame would be effectively rigid itself. Corning's Gorilla Glass already has a pretty good track record in the face of rough use, and it's inexpensive and ubiquitous. And don't forget about the multi-billion-dollar protective case market, either.
All things considered, bendable displays are nothing to get excited about, and they represent only one piece in a much larger -- and equally unnecessary -- bendable puzzle. The purpose they'd serve in the mobile marketplace lacks the combined staying power where want meets need, and they're little more than a trade show curiosity. There are zero practical large scale benefits, and there's no twist to this tale. In the context of smartphones and tablets, bendable screens are useless.
And honestly, when you think about it, our iDevices are flexible enough. You can browse the web, play games, write articles, take photos, paint pictures, check email, send IMs, you name it.
The mobile marketplace isn't a limbo contest.
Although that's where bendable displays will forever remain.
[Lead image: engadget.com]