Smartphone Market Disruption on the Horizon

View from Land's End, UK. Image courtesy Pixabay

View from Land's End, UK. Image courtesy Pixabay

Some of these smartphone problems can be solved or at least partially solved with the adoption of a smartwatch. However this then introduces a new set of problems. Generally the smartphone and smartwatch are "umbilically" linked using Bluetooth wireless, which consumes power, only has very limited range and in the crowded 2.4GHz band may be unreliable. The smartwatch display and user interface is typically small and fiddly which limits what can be achieved. There is always a dilemma for the user as to whether to complete a given task on a small fiddly display or take the hit and dig out the smartphone. Finally there are now two devices to purchase, learn how to use, keep charged up and generally managed. In general smartwatches complicate life for the user. They also complicate life for the application developers which makes applications more expensive to develop and more likely to disappoint the user.

How about combining the benefits of a smartwatch and smartphone into a single wearable device? This would solve nearly all of the problems identified above. A previous article discusses what such a device might look like and describes how it would need to easily change between the slate and bracelet form factors. The minimum radius of curvature required in the bracelet state will be at least 10mm which means that the display stack will be subject to much lower stresses. Furthermore the number of bending cycles is likely to be far fewer because the device will remain on the wrist in smartwatch mode for most of the time. This unification of functions into a single device is the same approach that Apple used with the original iPhone. There is of course a price to be paid in that the display shape would probably need to be narrower than most of today's smartphones to make the device comfortable to wear. This is probably a price worth paying for most people.

Some analysts such as CCS Insight are now predicting that unless there is some radical innovation, smartphone sales in Western markets will peak in 2017. Of course it is possible that smartphones will continue to sell in massive numbers with the peaks in other regions coming in the next decade. However this seems unlikely, because the display which lies at the heart of the smartphone, is currently undergoing radical and disruptive innovation.

It was Apple's first iPhone which proved that a glass LCD display with a touch screen and a finger for the stylus could provide a beautiful and intuitive user interface for mobile devices. Up until 2013, smartphone displays were constructed from thin sheets of glass and it is the resulting rigidity of the display which has dictated the smartphone's slate form factor. With the arrival of plastic OLED displays which can today be conformed into different shapes, the rules of the game have changed. LG and Samsung have already released a number of products such as the Samsung Galaxy Round and the LG G Flex which incorporate curved plastic OLED displays. Note however that glass is still used to cover the display as this provides an excellent water vapour barrier layer to protect the OLED materials which are highly sensitive to ingress of moisture and oxygen. Although thin sheets of glass can be flexible, in practice they are prone to cracking and thus far only smartphones with rigidly curved displays have reached the market.

Thin and flexible barrier layers with adequate performance are perhaps the biggest challenge that must be overcome to enable dynamically flexible OLED displays. However new flexible barrier layers are being developed which are getting closer to the required levels of performance. Other display technologies such as FlexEnable's OLCD technology are also made with a plastic substrate. As well as having the potential to be lower cost than AMOLED displays, they have less stringent encapsulation requirements. Dynamically flexible displays promise to completely change what is possible with future mobile devices and as a result they will almost certainly have radically different form factors. Some commentators are predicting that foldable mobile devices will be the first products to use dynamically flexible displays. This opens up the prospect of a smartphone sized device that can morph into a small tablet.

However folding is one of the most brutal shape changes that can be inflicted on a display, particularly in the region of the fold where the radius of curvature may be approximately 1 mm. The risk is that the layers in the stack delaminate due to the extra forces that occur as the display is flexed. Consider a typical user who looks at their phone over 100 times per day. Over a 3 year period this implies that the display may need to survive over 100,000 fold/unfold cycles and still look beautiful which seems unlikely at present. Fortunately there are other form factor innovations that are far less demanding. Before considering these, consider some of the fundamental problems with today's smartphones that would be valuable to solve.

The first problem is that we need a pocket or bag to store a smartphone when we are on the move. This is particularly inconvenient when running or playing a sport for example. Keeping the smartphone in a bag or pocket results in missed calls, notifications and messages. It can also result in missed photo opportunities and users compulsively checking their smartphones which may be considered rude in social settings or meetings. Smartphones require the use of at least one hand which may be inconvenient. As has already been noted glass displays are prone to shattering. Because smartphones aren't usually in contact with the skin, they aren't well suited to monitoring the user's heart rate and other vital signs. Finally smartphones don't make a great watch.

Mark Catchpole              First published on 5th April 2016         All rights reserved

Mark is a wearable technology consultant with Wearable Consultants based in Cambridge, UK. Please get in touch via