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Flexible-display smartphones just a 'novelty'…. for now

Until smartphone components can bend, flexible displays not expected to take off.

By , Network World
May 10, 2013 06:08 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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