MIT Technology Review

Monday, February 04, 2013

Why Do We Want a Flexible Phone?

The idea of a flexible phone is cool. But will it be a revolutionary product?

There’s been a lot of talk of late (stoked sometimes, I admit, by myself) about the prospect of flexible smartphone screens. But as I pointed out last month, screens are only part of the equation in the journey towards a wholly flexible phone: “You’d still have to tackle the phone’s innards, too,” was how I put it (see “Flexible Smartphone Batteries”).

CNET’s Jessica Dolcourt, as part of her series “Smartphones Unlocked,” does a deeper dive on all the R&D we need to see reach fruition in order to arrive at that enticing image: “smartphones that sway in the breeze.”

First of all, it turns out that for all the hoopla (see under: Youm), it’s not exactly as though the flexible screen problem itself has been completely solved. Dolcourt points out that there’s a misconception out there that just because a glass screen can bend and undulate, that means it can’t break. That’s false: even a wobbly screen can snap. Plastic screens might pick up a mantle, but they’d be more vulnerable to scratching than what we’re used to; in any event, they are a ways from commercialization. Dolcourt likewise debunks certain myths surrounding the idea of a flexible smartphone battery, and questions the wisdom of a bendable phone chassis. You may not want a phone that bends like silly putty, it turns out, since your phone may wind up stuck contorted in weird positions.

One of the most interesting parts of Dolcourt’s piece comes where one her sources, the director of Corning's Willow Glass division, tells her that what’s really gumming up the works for flexible phones is the simple fact that “vendors haven’t zeroed-in on what they want.”

That got me thinking: I know that I want a flexible phone, but I don’t really know why. Perhaps it’s the mere novelty of it. When I walk by the new Barclays Center in my Brooklyn neighborhood, with its 360-degree curving “oculus,” I can’t help but do a double take. I hadn't seen screens shaped like that before.

Or perhaps, quite the opposite, it’s the sense of a throwback. A curved screen looks and behaves more like paper. Like a lot of people, I miss paper, and I find pleasing the idea that further advances in our technology can take us back to desirable form factors we've had to leave behind.

But both of these arguments--the argument from novelty, and the argument from nostalgia--may hold no weight with a generation reared on smartphones to begin with. Products live or die based on their utility, and it has yet to be demonstrated that the utility of a flexible smartphone will be commensurate with potential added costs.

What do you think are the potential uses of a flexible phone or tablet? Is this mere hype, or would the novel form factor create a real revolution in the way we use electronics?