Are Flexible smartphones truly ‘flexible’?

The latest Apple iPhones may be slimmer, slicker and feature-rich, but they also appear to have taken the idea of ‘flexible’ phones a little too far. Apple has faced a barrage of criticism that its new phones have a nasty tendency to bend with only a little bit of pressure (such as leaving one in the back pocket of your fashionable skinny jeans and then sitting down).

While anyone with a rudimentary understanding of engineering won’t be surprised that thin aluminium casings bend when you apply force to them (basic rules of both metallurgy and physics), the buying public hasn’t been particularly impressed with the ‘flexible’ nature of their new (and very expensive) iPhones!

Are we expecting too much?

However, some commentators have laid the blame firmly back on consumers and believe that Apple have nothing to apologise for. Some technology bloggers have cited it as a clear indication as to how much we expect from our tech these days – namely thinner, lighter phones that are robust enough to cope with everyday stresses and strains. Unfortunately, aluminium is a very soft and pliable metal (when compared to steel), and if you put pressure on a thin aluminium casing it will, inevitably, bend.

Flexible Smartphones

It’s meant to do that…

But what if it was meant to bend? What if flexible phones were truly ‘flexible’? That’s what companies such as Plastic Logic are currently working on, and they are at the forefront of flexible technology. So what makes it flexible? Well, it’s not wafer thin and lightweight aluminium shells, but the screens themselves. Classic glass screens are most definitely not flexible, and the curved screens we are now starting to see emerge into the consumer marketplace are fashioned to be curved, rather than offering truly flexible screen technology. Put simply, they’re set into a particular position and cannot be altered in any way.

But the flexible screen technology that Plastic Logic and others are now working on could be a real game changer when it comes to flexible electronics, including truly flexible phones rather than ones that just bend when you sit on them! So why would flexible screens be such a major step forward? Well, they would be:

  • Lighter – plastic is far lighter than glass, as well as thinner
  • Stronger – glass is fragile whereas a plastic screen would be able to withstand far more knocks and general wear and tear
  • Cheaper – the unit cost would be reduced

However, there are some drawbacks that need to be overcome before plastic screens take over from their glass cousins. As with any mobile device, the battery is a key component of any smartphone. Old batteries are unreliable (after a certain number of charges they can fail), drain quickly and, in the context of flexible phones, quite rigid. However, electronics giant LG may be tackling that last problem with a new development of a flexible battery that can be bent, folded and even, apparently, tied in a knot. This could make truly flexible phones a viable option in the next couple of years, especially if it’s combined with Plastic Logic’s flexible screen technology, which is now producing screen rates that are comparable with standard glass screen phones.

Secondly the colour palette has in the past been somewhat muted and needs to be expanded considerably if it’s to appeal to users. But Plastic Logic believes that they’re close to tackling both of these issues, especially the question of colour. CEO Indro Mukerjee said recently that: “Plastic Logic’s development of a colour flexible plastic display is particularly significant, since the same process could enable unbreakable, flexible display solutions with other media such as LCD and OLED,” and that the technology has far-reaching potential.

Flexible Smartphones (2)

He added that: “Our ability to create flexible, transmissive backplanes has led us not only to co-develop a flexible image sensor, but is also key to flexible OLED displays as well as unbreakable LCDs,” which indicates that truly ‘flexible’ phones could be just around the corner.

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Anirudh KarthikAnirudh Karthik is the co-founder of all posts by Anirudh Karthik →

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