A woman holds a box of Apple phone in her hand after Apple launched iPhone 8 and 8 plus at the GUM department store in Moscow, Russia on September 29, 2017.
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By Mohanbir Sawhney
December 5, 2017

There’s another evolution brewing in the tech world. We know display technology as what we experience with our smartphones: flat and static—not three-dimensional. But imagine an iPhone that better represents everyday objects and more closely links form of the display to the function of the device. It could create intriguing possibilities.

Apple seems to agree. Its patent for a flexible folding display has garnered a lot of attention and speculation, as it could bring together form and function for next-generation iPhones, iPads, and Apple watches, as well as for nontraditional devices like appliances, cars, and medical devices. Such a device would address a common complaint about smartphones becoming too big. Imagine a smartphone that can fit easily in a coat pocket, but can then be expanded with a foldout display. A gaming device with a screen that hinges could allow two players to each have their dedicated screen without being able to see their competitor’s display. A smartwatch could have a display that wraps around your wrist like a cuff.

As with technology in general, flexible display technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. History is replete with innovations that were technical marvels, but failed to find compelling applications that customers would pay for. Consider, for instance, the amazing 3D display technology that Amazon (AMZN) pioneered in its ill-fated Fire Phone, only to find that customers did not really find this feature useful or relevant. Flexible displays will only find market acceptance if they allow users to do things that they could not do before.

To make the flexible display technology useful, Apple (AAPL) must consider what people might want to do with a display, but are not able to do yet—or aren’t even asking for today. When Apple created “pinch and expand” and “swipe” features, users were surprised and delighted. Now, how might displays that adapt and morph address the unspoken problems and unarticulated needs of users as they engage activities such as watching a movie with friends, reading a newspaper online, reading the display like a roadmap in a car, or accessing fitness features while exercising?

Samsung is ahead of the pack with its Galaxy S6 edge, the first smartphone to feature a curved display as early as March 2015, which has been a success, mostly for aesthetic reasons, as the edges of the screen also provide an additional place to show information without interfering with the main display. In fact, it would not be surprising if Samsung came out with the first foldable or bendable display on a smartphone, while Apple will watch, wait, and learn from the pioneers. Apple may even buy its flexible screens from Samsung as it does today for the displays of its iPhoneX. I also predict that we will see flexible displays by 2019 from other Asian companies like LG and Xiaomi, which are closer to the manufacturers in Korea and China.

 

Flexible displays will be an advancement from a technical standpoint. Whether it will be a “killer feature” in future phones and Internet-connected devices remains to be seen. Although I see a lot of opportunity for non-flat displays, my expectation is that some of the killer apps will be for devices that aren’t phones. We are heading into a future where every object can be connected to a network. Flexible displays will allow users to interact with these smart objects. Displays can be embedded into architectural elements like windows and walls. They can be integrated into automotive dashboards and windshields for enhanced views and increased safety. They can allow wearable medical devices to expand with bigger displays of data. They can even be embedded into workout clothes to give you information on how your workout is affecting specific muscle groups. Greater contextual adaptability could be very useful for the “Internet of Things,” the vast interconnected web of smart devices for consumer as well as industrial applications.

It is exciting to think about all the possibilities of flexible displays, but technology needs to be more than a solution looking for a problem. Here are the critical questions for Apple, Samsung, and all the rest to ask themselves: What customer problems are flexible displays going to solve? Who will use them? What will be the most valuable use cases? How much will people pay for the added functionality? A lot of experimentation will be needed to discover the “killer applications” for flexible displays.

Mohanbir Sawhney is the McCormick Foundation professor of technology at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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