Why Flexible Screens Will Change Everything

Rumor has it that Apple is planning curved display iPhones next year. Samsung and LG are planning flexible displays, too. What gives? Flexible screens are the next big thing. In fact, flexible screens will change everything. Here's a look at why.

Flexible screens are the next stage in the foreseeable evolution of digital devices. These stages have been clear since the early days of the Sony Librie and E Ink electronic paper display technology in 2006 or so, but have taken years to develop and play out in the consumer marketplace. In fact, a lot of thinking goes all the way back to 1981, when digital newspapers and eReaders were just a gleam in the eye of visionary Roger Fidler.

I had ringside seat in the early days of the development of the eReader, tracking its collective progress from my news technology perch at The Boston Globe, as I set out on a search for the first truly usable tablet for mobile news delivery.

Many technologists and entrepreneurs were trying to come up with the first successful mobile tablet. Names you’ve never heard of like “First Paper” or “Plastic Logic,” and many other barely known such as iRex and Hearst’s Skiff were racing to be the first practical devices, most of them based on the E Ink screen technology that was being perfected at the time and which resulted from MIT Media Lab research.

Amazon’s Kindle was the first major success based on the E Ink screen. Apple then went on to create a larger market with its full-color, fully functional tablet. Amazon has followed up with the iPad-like Fire. Many other manufacturers, like Samsung and even Sony are racing to catch up. None are cheap. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to nearly $1,000, depending on storage, 3G and service contracts.

Many of us pay the high cost of these early devices, though, because these devices work; they have brought the vision of mobile content to a crisp, functional reality. They have the content we want, with the apps and social media access that we have come to make part of our daily routine, and they are both convenient and fun to use. The high cost of the current tablets is the price of admission in a marketplace with a very small number of competitors.

The flexible screen, however, will give us an inexpensive and utilitarian option. When this happens, we will be focused on the content rather than the device. Rather than a small number of successful devices to choose from, the digital reader will become a commodity, cheap and accessible to a much larger base of businesses and consumers.

Currently, flexible screens are not quite flexible enough. They have to be bolted down to self-defeating, ungainly devices to keep consumers from bending and cracking them.

As the technology improves in coming years, however, flexible screens will at some point be freed from their awkward and limiting frames. At the same time, the computer components required for their functionality are getting smaller, lighter and cheaper. One could image a flexible plastic screen connected by blue tooth to a computer fob in your pocket, or to your smart phone, possibly following the model of some of the first-generation smart watches.

When that happens, flexible screens not only will become the face of myriad reading devices, but the basis for wearable technology -- and anything else designers can dream up. Certainly there will be many costly, high-end specialty tablets and devices still on the market, but the inexpensive flexible screen will become the standard due to their low cost and multiple uses.

We will get to a point that if we leave our flexible display behind on the bus or train, we’ll simply pick up a new one without a second thought.

In the heyday of newspapers, we only thought about which news outlet was delivering what we considered the most useful news and information. We didn’t give a thought to the newsprint the information was printed on. We will arrive at a point with flexible screens; we will once again be focused on the content, rather than the device.

Eventually, the cost of these screens will be so low that they will serve as a replacement for paper. When this occurs, or when we get close to this, the lock that great device manufacturers like Apple, Amazon and Samsung have on us will be pried free. Competition will open up the market again and what we have access to on our mobile tablets and wearable devices will not be in the hands of Apple or Amazon, but in our hands.

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