The first curved display smartphone, the 5.7-in. Samsung Galaxy Round, goes on sale today in South Korea for 1 million Korean won, equal to about $1,015. Whether the device, which runs Android 4.3, ever goes on sale in the U.S. or Europe is unknown.
Analysts predict a small group of early adopters in the U.S. will favor the Round's distinctive look, but only at half that price. If anything, a curved display could be as intriguing to buyers as the new iPhone 5S encased in metal with a shade of gold.
Is a curved display a significant innovation? Or, is Samsung just doing what it always does: Churning out product after product to prove that it can do so faster and more efficiently than anyone else? Maybe both.
Samsung has shown it can release unusual new products quickly. In the past three months, new Galaxy Tab tablets have arrived, most recently the Galaxy Note 3 with its digital stylus and phablet-sized display that's also 5.7-in. The company also introduced, to mixed reviews, the $300 Galaxy Gear smartwatch that works with the Note 3 in early September.
Samsung seems to want to release a mobile product to serve every conceivable niche market of consumers. Maybe that's Samsung's way of achieving a marketing edge over Apple, which releases new tablets and smartphones on a fixed timetable.
It's worth noting that its strategy has worked, helping make Samsung the largest phone maker in the world. It's not the flat, relatively straightforward product-innovation-and-release approach of many vendors (Apple included). You could call it skewed, or "curved," marketing -- a fitting approach for launching a new curved display smartphone.
As to whether a curved touchscreen display is a significant advance in technology, there's also plenty of evidence. Samsung is already designing many bigger -- arguably, more important -- uses for its flexible OLED displays.
At International CES last January, Samsung showed a prototype smartphone fitted with flexible OLED that wrapped around part of the device to cover the left and right edges. If the phone were lying face down on a table, messages could be displayed along the edges.
A four-minute YouTube video from a CES stage presentation shows Samsung executives describing that smartphone prototype along with another foldable smartphone prototype with a flexible display. Samsung even had a USB stick prototype at CES with a display that could be rolled out the side like a scroll, and then rolled back in when no longer needed. An ad in the video also depicts how future "bendable, foldable and rollable" displays might be used in products in the real world.
The flexible OLED ideas were introduced in January under the Youm brand, although Samsung didn't include the word Youm in describing its new Galaxy Round.
Other companies are also developing flexible displays, including Sony and Corning, the maker of the Gorilla Glass used in many smartphones today. At the IFA trade show in Germany in September, Samsung joined LG Electronics and Sony in showing off curved-screen TVs. Some were based on OLED, which is best known for producing blacker blacks to improve the viewing experience on a color display.
Samsung took nearly four years to reach the point of a production-quality Galaxy Round device. OLEDs emit their own light and as a result don't need a rigid, thick backlight like an LCD screen does.
Displays using OLED, (Organic Light Emitting Diode), are made of electroluminescent films of organic semiconductors that are usually 100nm thick. The semiconductors are usually fabricated on a glass substrate at first, but the glass is replaced with a flexible plastic such as polyethylene terephthalate to make a flexible display.
The Galaxy Round's display is flexible AMOLED, a variant of OLED, that refers to Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diodes. It is also a high- definition display.
Beyond the physical properties of the flexible display, Samsung has introduced software features that rely on the curved display. One is called Gravity Effect that lets a user tilt the device for viewing and another is Roll Effect for checking information such as date and time when the home screen is off.
It's unclear whether these new software features will become important to users or will get relegated to what some reviewers called superficial (and sometimes unreliable) add-ons like Smart Scroll, Smart Pause and Air Gesture that are part of the latest round of Samsung devices including the Galaxy S4 smartphone.
Samsung also touted the Galaxy Round's one-hand operation, which allows a user's controls to be moved to one side of the large curved screen for easier one-handed touches with a thumb. A multi-window feature also allows opening of more than one app on a single screen.
The Galaxy Round will also have other important hardware aside from the flexible display. There is a Qualcomm Quad Krait 2.3 GHz processor, the MSM 8974, along with 32 GB of storage and a microSD card slot for adding up to 64 GB. A large, 2,800 mAh battery is included.
A 13-megapixel rear camera is coupled with a 2-megapixel front camera. The phone will run over LTE networks and supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy. Samsung Knox enterprise security and management software is also supported.
The Galaxy Round weighs 5.4 ounces, and is indeed large, measuring 5.95 x 3.1 x 0.3 inches.
So given the Galaxy Round is now on the market, at least in South Korea, when might other Samsung flexible display prototypes appear? Will any be a sales success?
Some analysts believe a large, curved smartphone like the Galaxy Round will be easier to store in a pocket than a flat rectangular phone. "A segment of users will pay the premium for a phablet-styled smartphone that is more pocketable," said analyst Kevin Burden of Strategy Analytics.
But the success of the Round will also depend on its price. "There is a market for every device out there, some much smaller than others," Burden said. "Volume won't come until this technology is in devices at prices that users have come to expect to pay for a premium smartphone."
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said Samsung understands its markets well, and knows that luxury, high-priced devices sell well in Asian countries but can be greeted more skeptically in the U.S. "The round display is more of a gimmick at this point until Samsung can show a true use case that makes it necessary" for users, he said.
The possibilities for other flexible technologies are even more exciting, Gold said. Among products under development are flexible circuit boards and flexible batteries. If an entire device is made flexible, it's theoretically possible it could be wrapped around a wrist or an arm, or rolled up and placed a purse or a pocket, he said.
"The possibilities are to be discovered, but [flexible displays] could lead to some interesting innovations," Gold said.
Given past history, it's possible Samsung will have its bendable smartphone prototypes like those shown at CES ready for market sometime in 2014, although Samsung hasn't offered a timeline.
Flexible technologies might open new product categories that Samsung could use, such as curved window panes that double as touchscreens for Internet access. Or the curved displays could be used in car dashboards or in appliances that incorporate Web browser touchscreens.
However the flexible displays are used, maybe what Samsung is first trying to do is open up our imaginations with its Galaxy Round.
This article, Samsung's new Galaxy Round smartphone: a 'curved-Earth' approach to new products, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected]