Although multiple manufacturers are expected to release smartphones with flexible display screens by the end of this year, the technology will be little more than a novelty until about 2015, one analyst says.
Raza Ali, an analyst at Visiongain, authored a report released in February that forecasted the market for flexible display technology to reach $260.3 million by the end of 2013. That may not come as much of a surprise, with LG planning to ship its first flexible displays later this year and Samsung drumming up publicity with its flexible YOUM prototype at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
However, for several reasons, Ali says the first wave of smartphones featuring flexible displays won’t have much of an impact on the mobile device market until the end of 2015.
One major reason is that a flexible display doesn’t make much of a difference on a smartphone that doesn’t feature flexible components.
“The technology has not come to the point where the whole device could be flexible,” Ali says. “So the devices have to be rigid for now. This is the main drawback holding back the market.”
Of course, the most innovative of consumers will still line up to buy the first smartphones that feature a flexible display, Ali says. Unless manufacturers can guarantee that flexible displays will not break – a major concern among modern smartphone owners – most consumers will see through the hype.
“Initially, whenever the first [flexible-screen] smartphone comes out, and I think it will be the first quarter of next year, I think it will be more of a novelty product,” Ali says. “So you’ll just want to have it because it’s one of the first ones in the market. But I don’t think it will have much commercial attraction for smartphone users.”
In the meantime, manufacturers will invest heavily in flexible display technology, trying to find innovative uses for the material. One possibility is a curved screen on a rigid device, such as Samsung’s prototype that showed scrolling messages on a small section of display curved around the side of a smartphone.
“Some of the other things that really are attracting other manufacturers is basically how the displays can be flexed and curved, and without the glass encapsulation it would be thinner and lighter and I think even the price point could be brought down, but it will take some time to do that,” Ali says.
A common problem in the flexible display market is managing cost. Even the group behind Gyricon, the world’s first flexible display technology, invented by physicist Nicholas Sheridon and the Xerox PARC research team, wasn’t able to keep the cost of the technology low enough. By 2005, just two years after Xerox subsidized Gyricon to operate on its own, Xerox pulled the plug on the project amid concerns over the cost of the material, opting to license the technology instead.
Manufacturers have made some progress in reducing the cost of flexible display technology, but still have some work to do, Ali says.
“I think the main thing holding it back is it still needs a lot more development, as well as new materials, because I think the materials are the things pushing costs significantly higher up, and I think the manufacturing processes need to be fine-tuned,” he says.
Even when products that make use of the technology are ready for consumer markets, they won’t come cheap, Ali adds.
“There have been significant improvements from the past in bringing down the cost, but I’m still not certain what the price of this TV or these mobile devices will be initially,” he says. “But it won’t be in the lower end. It will be somewhere upward of, I think, $500.”
Once manufacturers solve a few key issues for smartphone users, primarily ensuring the user experience on a flexible display screen is no different than that on traditional touchscreens, Ali says smartphones will be the key catalyst driving adoption of the technology. Flexible displays will be prominently featured in TV screens and tablets, but the rate at which consumers upgrade smartphones will account for a significant amount of the market.
Despite rumors suggesting smart wristwatches from both Apple and Samsung, which would rely on flexible displays, Ali says market interest in the devices will be too low to spark much interest from manufacturers.
“I think the adoption for smart watches is not going to be as high as some people are predicting right now. I think it is a complementary device to a smartphone, but not a replacement device,” Ali says. “There will be some interest from consumers, but I don’t think it will be enough that many of the manufacturers start.”
The next couple of years will be critical to the success of flexible display technology, and will see an influx of research and development. But Ali believes the technology will overcome the obstacles and will become a common feature in the future of consumer electronics.
“Once the technology has been there and the adoption rate starts to go up, I think this will be a game-changing technology and electronic devices, both small mobile and large-screen devices, will take the next level of user experience and other possibilities for the digital world,” he says.
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.