The Pie in the Sky
Samsung has been demonstrating flexible AMOLED screens for a couple of years now, and past concept videos have shown some interesting eye candy, but most applications looked like they belonged in the next Star Trek film rather than in the real world. The video below, for example shows scenery from the real world, but I have a hard time imagining the display pictured coming out anytime before 2020. I had an even harder time imagining someone walking through a crowded sidewalk while holding the display in front of him with both hands and interacting with it .
In similar manner, the concept devices shown off at past tradeshows (some of which managed to survive long enough to appear this year) certainly had the look, but it was difficult to see any practical uses for them them aside from decorating your living room. Until this year, these devices have been what tech enthusiasts have associated with flexible AMOLED display technology.
Cool! I can make the movie I'm watching look distorted!
To be fair, a retractable display like this could definitely be useful in some applications, because it's more portable and the screen would be protected from your pens, keys, etc. in your pocket (or pocketbook).
Now that's more like it - a 5th-generation retractable Galaxy Note tablet
2013: Getting back to earth (or not)
This year we finally saw a more realistic concept, one that might even come out this year in the form of the Galaxy S IV, if you were to believe the rather wild and (from what I could see) unfounded speculation posted at PC-Tablet.com. I doubt we'll see it in the Galaxy S IV, as I explained here, but it's not too far-fetched to think that sometime later this year Samsung will actually release a phone resembling the one pictured below.
The problem I see is that this still looks like a gimmick phone - it actually strikes me as more of a Samsung Continuum II than a Galaxy S IV (or even V). Granted, I did see one practical application demoed in the shot below, namely that you can view an incoming message without turning the entire screen on. Obviously, unless Android 5.0 comes with a notification center that can be adapted to this type of display (or unless a third-party app is developed to do so), you'll find the edge display useless if you port AOSP to such a phone. You'd better stick with TouchWiz if you want to use that edge panel.
Practical, useful, and probably won't appear until 2014 at the earliest
In its keynote address (video posted below), Samsung showed a commercial concept (beginning at the 6:13 mark) portraying a hopelessly inept hipster trying to get some face time with an attractive young brunette. Alas, he tries to impress her with a monstrous clunker of a tablet while the golden boy sitting on the other side from her simply folds his flexible Super AMOLED phone-tablet and prepares to walk away. It's not hard to imagine which guy captures her attention (and scores a date, since women in Samsung commercials apparently swoon for awesome technology).
My point is this: "mack" value aside, this type of device would actually be useful and would probably break the sound barrier in sales. Unlike foldable dual-display gimmick tablets of the last couple of years, there is no interruption in the display to allow for hinges, thus no need for limited-compatibility and limited-function software to make two separate displays appear to be parts of a whole. Also, the device features an external phone display that simply looks gorgeous.
Flexible displays: the next frontier in mobile devices
This concept not only makes practical sense but is also within the realm of possibility to appear as soon as 2014 or 2015. It seems that Samsung has finally imagined a worthy implementation for its cutting-edge technology. In my opinion, flexible displays are the next frontier for mobile devices. Android has had some time to mature, Apple is innovating at a snail's pace while suing everyone in sight for "stealing" its technology (and won some huge cases, yet Android devices continue to fly off the shelves), and devices are becoming more and more difficult to differentiate.
Even now, smartphones are becoming more alike than ever. At present, the only phone you'll find in the U.S. with both a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and a 1080p display is the Droid DNA. However, the overseas market already has several alternatives with more on the way. In the next couple of months, we'll begin to see a number of devices with this combination in the U.S. as well. By mid-year, the market will be inundated with them.
Samsung, of course, looks to stay ahead of the pack with its Galaxy S IV powered by its next-generation Exynos 5450 quad-core processor and sporting a 1080p Super AMOLED display. Even if those are the final specs of the device, it'll be yet another quad-core phone with a 1080p display (while it's possible that the Galaxy S IV will be powered by Samsung's "Octa" chip with 8 cpu cores, only four cores will be active at any given time with that chipset). The difference between a quad-core Exynos 5450 and a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro will likely be lost on the average consumer, and Super AMOLED displays are not as superior to their newer LCD counterparts as Samsung would have you believe.
As I explained in this article, the playing field is leveling out between manufacturers as processors become more evenly matched and high-end displays become cheaper to produce. Even now, manufacturers are reduced to using such things as camera technology and chassis design to make their phones stand out. Unfortunately for rooted users, manufacturers are also going to rely more and more on their custom Android skins to distinguish their products.
Enter the flexible display. Samsung is currently the leader in Super AMOLED technology, and should have a comfortable lead in developing devices that take advantage of this technology. Its products will likely stand out for a year or two before the competition manages to commoditize this technology as well. Still, flexible displays offer more options for product differentiation, so even if every Android device manufacturer under the sun made phones and tablets at a similar price point featuring this technology, there are still many possibilities for each company to distinguish its products from the others.