Bendable Handsets: Hype vs Reality

16-08-2017 Shelley Vishwajeet

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Bendable Handsets: Hype vs Reality

IN SEARCH FOR THE NEXT BIG THING IN SMARTPHONE DESIGN, MANY OEMS HAVE BEEN DEVELOPING AND HYPING BIG TIME ON BENDABLE PHONES? BUT WILL FLEXI-HANDSETS TURN TO BE THE NEW SUPERPHONES OR JUST ANOTHER FANCY SHOWOFF TOYS?

It’s been over half a decade when hoopla surrounding bendable phones began. The last we heard was that Samsung was all set to launch its bendable handset in 2014. This is 2017 but now is not here still! Other OEMs like Lenovo, Xiaomi, Oppo have been working on it but only prototypes have been displayed or leaked. Amid all this, the march over first true bendable, rather foldable smartphone has actually been stolen by a Johhny from nowhere - by the name Moxi, a new handset OEM based out of Chonquing, China. The phone does have a novelty but then it is just half the smartphone that we have got used to displaying a narrow black & white screen. So apart from the novelty factor (but at a hefty price tag of USD 399), there is nothing much that would really excite today’s smartphone users.

Still, the brouhaha or chorus (take your pick) over bendable phones hasn’t stopped. After all, the rectangular box has been around for quite some time and manufacturers have been looking around for that something novel that could excite consumers and give an added push to the numbers. At the same time, tech writers also need new indulgences to engage readers – so they often tend to invent novelty and utilities where none exist or are often far away from reality. Often, it’s an unspoken obligation on the part of bloggers too to indulge in showmance. Yes, some are definitely honest about the non-existence of any raison d’etre of their excitement – but remain thrilled nonetheless. For example, back in 2013, writing for MIT Technology  Review, tech writer David Zax wrote “Why do we want a flexible phone?” and exclaimed - “the idea of a flexible phone is cool. But will it be a revolutionary product?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I want one of these bendy phones, but when forced to reflect on why, I find a blank slate. Call it blind consumerism, buying into the hype, or just fanboy zeal; bendable phones, even foldable tablets, present little progress from their solid counterparts,” wrote … Chris Fox, Managing Editor, Product Design & Development (pddnet.com) a long time back adding “Flexible OLEDs are not a new concept – they have been hyped and displayed in promotional faculties for a few years now, but the really progressive technology (the stuff that will not only advance consumer products, but also present concepts and capabilities for smaller, more durable electronics) has already moved on. The release and use of a flexi-phone should be (and maybe already has been) reduced to a gimmick-ridden novelty.”

But tech writer Jessica Dolcourt, Section Editor, CNET sees the ongoing efforts differently. “As powerful as today’s phones are, their rectangular reliability has become a boring necessity that we hardly see at all. And that’s why handsets that bend, twist, snap and fold will electrify and energize the industry, even if these newfangled future devices limp and lag at first,” she wrote in an article titled “Bendable and foldable phones are coming. Are you ready?” This was followed by a brief commentary: “These envelope-pushing phones will move everyone forward, but it may be years before they’re fully embraced.”

Giving her own rationale for why should one want a bendable or foldable phone she writes, “Flexing, folding handsets are visually and intellectually cool because rigid electronic pieces usually don’t bend, at least not without a hinge. But is there an actual use for them beyond pushing the boundaries of what designers and scientists can do?” She goes further, “What excites me most, though, is that this type of innovation helps phone makers everywhere build on past discoveries to propel new ones. It is, after all, only through trial and error that the industry collectively figures out what works and what doesn’t. It’s the kind of development that will give us the next tech we can’t live without, the same way that the passion to miniaturize a desktop computer brought about the smartphone tucked into your pocket right now.”

Dolcourt does have a point but that hasn’t stopped the growing tribe of Doubting Thomas. And it seems even companies like Lenovo, Xiaomi and Oppo apart from Samsung who have been investing for years in developing “a really cool flexi handset” that would blow off millennial and Gen Z – aren’t sure either about its real utility or the commercial viability.

A Quantum Leap? Let us see what features do enthusiasts of bendables cite to justify the excitement? Samsunggeeks’ cite ‘five big advantages’:

(i)Slimness: With no need for bulky glass, flexible displays are significantly slimmer, allowing for the thinnest displays we’ve ever seen.

(ii)Weight: Without glass, flexible displays are significantly lighter

(iii)Durability: With no glass to shatter, flexible displays are pretty much invincible to the normal drops and bumps we inflict on our prized devices.

(Iv) In the long-term – they should be cheaper. Maybe not to produce… but the relative thinness and lightness of flexible displays means more of them can fit into one shipping container. That means they should be cheaper to ship, and (*in theory*) cheaper to buy.

(vi)They are Flexible.

Well our take on each of these points are as follows. On thinness – well there was a time when smartphone makers were going one up over others to make world’s thinnest handset. It all started out in 2011 when Sony Ericsson launched Xperia (8.7MM) which was promoted as the world’s slimmest android phone. Motorola soon followed with Droid Razr 7.1mm. Both phones had got good eyeballs but only modest sales success. Later Chinese manufacturers such Huawei, Vivo, Oppo and Gionee jumped onto the slim-trim bandwagon but the models didn’t really move the mountain. So what could be the reason? Well, just like one doesn’t really find anorexic models attractive, similarly slimness of a handset beyond a point not only becomes annoying but highly inconvenient too.

Similarly, when it comes to lightness, nobody really wants a 2-pounder like Motorola Dyna TA C800x but nobody either would like the phone to weight 40 grams either. One does like to feel the weight of a product which has become like second skin to people today. Today’s phone typically ranges from 110-160 gms. A little weight does make the palm have a more intimate feel of the product. And we all know how intimate and integral this device has become to humans.

Coming to durability; nothing is really confirmed as to what material is really being used by different handset makers to make the screen. But most preferred material today seems to be ‘Graphene’, a futuristic material first developed in  the UK and the one which has also been used by Moxi. Graphene has many superior properties. It is nearly 200 times stronger than the strongest steel and efficiently conducts heat and electricity and is nearly transparent. This in theory certainly is advantageous than conventional glass screen but then glass majors like Cornings (Gorilla Glasses) and Asahi (Dragontrail) have developed glasses which are also steel solid and would certainly cost much less than graphene frame. So strength of screen is fine but do we really need bullet proof screens and be ready to pay a hefty premium?

And how long will be the long run to make flexi phones cheaper than today’s solid frame? Nobody really knows! This  proposition is simply based on the premise that in the long run, cost of every new innovation comes down? And the assertion that simply being flexible is advantageous in itself belies logic.

Our final take is that innovation is always welcome but it has to be accompanied by real value addition to justify the investments and hype. Simply building excitement about new shape without real value infusion will have only short term dividend. Till then, we await the future to arrive!

ABOUT author

Shelley Vishwajeet

Shelley Vishwajeet is Editor, My Mobile. He has previously worked at senior positions with Business India, 21st Century Fox (Star Television Group), Indian Express ...

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