UX & Technology

Could your next phone be flexible?

“ConradConrad Duncan, Journalist

Rumours circulate of new flexible tech that could mean you’ll never break a screen again.

The moment when you pick your phone up off the floor and see a cracked screen is one of the most frustrating parts of being a smart phone user. Unlike classic ‘brick phones’, such as the Nokia 3310, which seemed like they were borderline indestructible, smart phones are notoriously easy to break. Could new flexible tech end the cycle of broken screens? One study calculated that British phone owners paid £4.6 billion on repairs in two years and 47% of current iPhone owners had previously broken an iPhone. Add to this the increasingly expensive cost of phone repairs—a new iPhone X screen will cost you £286—and you can see why a more durable phone would be a big draw for customers. Samsung think that they might have the answer with the idea of a flexible phone. They have been working on the technology since 2011 but it’s looking like 2018 might be the year that this idea turns into products, after the company referenced ‘flexible OLED (organic light emitting diode) panels’ in their latest earnings report. Industry experts are expecting Samsung to announce its first flexible phone soon, with mass production beginning later this year.

How does it work?

Samsung’s patents show a phone screen that bends like an old-fashioned flip phone. An early plan showed a product that incorporated both a phone and a tablet into the design so that when the phone was open it operated like a mini-iPad. In this endearing lame promo video, the idea is supposedly so cool that it will get you a date.
The problem for Samsung has been finding a conductive transparent material that is also flexible. Phone screens need to be able to conduct heat; that’s how your fingers are able to operate the screen, but most phone touch displays use indium tin oxide which is not flexible. Similarly, conventional glass does not bend, as proven by anyone who has dropped an iPhone before, so the glass layer that is usually used for OLED screens has had to be replaced. Whatever material is used must be conductive and transparent but also highly durable to survive the normal damage that comes with daily use. Earlier flexible screens solved this problem by replacing the glass layer in OLED screens, which break easily, with a layer of plastic film. However, reports suggest that Samsung have been using a hybrid polymer-glass substrate to make their flexible phones.

What are the benefits?

Other than the obviously positive that they are incredibly cool to look at, flexible screens come with some very useful benefits. Most notably, they are significantly more durable than conventional glass screens; some possibly over-excited researchers have claimed that they cannot be broken, which would make them extremely popular with users. The other major benefits will depend on how Samsung’s phones are designed but in theory, they should be both slimmer and significantly lighter than convention glass screen phones. This could mean that phones with flexible displays will be cheaper in the long-term than their glass equivalents. At the very least, they should be cheaper to produce. However, this benefit might not be seen by customers and may just see Samsung take home more profit. Flexible phones have been a matter of when, not if, for a while now and it’s looking increasingly likely that we will see a product from Samsung in the next few months. Unfortunately, it is also likely that the flexible phones we’ll see in the coming months will be limited with how much they can be folded before they become damaged. This is still very new technology so it will take time to work out all the practical issues with designs and manufacturing. Whatever Samsung is planning, it will probably be a limited edition, high-end product. Nevertheless, the future of flexible phones is an exciting one and if they can significant improve the resilience of smart phones, you can guarantee that they’re going to be popular with users.

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