Bendable Smartphones Aren't Coming Anytime Soon
Samsung Electronics's Galaxy Round smartphone retails in Korea for about $1,000. It's that expensive for a reason.
The curved display has graduated from science fiction to store shelves, but manufacturing them is still a challenging and expensive process. Screen makers are struggling to figure out the techniques needed to produce millions of the screens cheaply.
As for phones you can bend or fold? Don't hold your breath.
Mass-produced mobile devices with flexible — and eventually, foldable — screens may be as far as a decade away, according to Max McDaniel, chief marketing officer of Applied Materials's display business group. He showed me firsthand some of the complexities involved on a recent tour of an R&D lab at the Santa Clara, California-based company, the world's largest maker of the machinery used to produce displays.
One of the main sticking points is an elusive screen technology called organic light-emitting diode, or OLED. Electronics makers have been touting the advantages of OLED since the days when PCs were big towers connected to bulky tube monitors. It allows companies to make screens that are thinner, sharper and more energy-efficient. Currently, that comes with a big trade-off: price.
Producing large amounts of these screens, using machines costing tens of millions of dollars that can deposit microscopic layers of materials in a vacuum, is expensive because of the relatively high failure rate, said McDaniel. One tiny speck of dust can be enough to send a whole screen to the scrap heap.
Even when they do get it right, the screens don't have a very long lifespan. OLED materials, which must be encased in a protective layer, can decay quickly. So it only makes sense to use the technology in smartphones or similar devices that people typically hang onto for no more than two years or so, McDaniel said.
Gadget makers aren't giving up on OLED. Samsung uses that type of screen in its high-end flagship Galaxy S line of phones. Even with the support of the world's largest smartphone maker, OLED hasn't grabbed much market share, said Vinita Jakhanwal, an analyst at market researcher IHS.
"Even with over 10 years of development and being incorporated in one of the best-selling handsets out there, it's still only 8 to 10 percent of the mobile handset market," she said.
Curved displays are even harder to make. They involve a painstaking process where a thin film is laid on a flat surface, lifted off and then adhered to a curved piece of plastic almost like a sticker, according to Jakhanwal. She expects the failure rate to be higher for these screens, which sends costs even higher.
Samsung's Galaxy Round and the G Flex from LG Electronics, which hits stores in Hong Kong on Dec. 13, will probably be the only two phones on the market this year that use that complex curved-OLED technology, Jakhanwal said. But Applied Materials is seeing increased interest from phone makers in those types of screens, McDaniel said.
"You're going to start to see more and more curved displays," he predicts. "Flat phones are going to start to look dorky."
Curved and flexible displays could account for 16 percent of the display market by 2023, compared with less than 1 percent this year, according to Touch Display Research. The market for OLED screens is expected to rise to about $93.8 million in 2014, and the first flexible displays could come as early as 2016, the researcher said.
For Applied, though, the difficulties of OLED and flexible displays are a chance to sell more technology and machinery after the stagnation caused by the relatively slow growth in TV size, McDaniel said. More complexity requires more capable machines and processes. That requires factory upgrades.
However, solving screen manufacturing issues is only part of the puzzle. Component makers will need to figure out how to make a battery that can be bent without failing and other parts such as cases that can flex.
"We're a long way from foldable," McDaniel said.