Samsung's curved smartphone: A big innovation or a novelty?

Is the Round's curved display significant technology or just a gimmick in a string of new Samsung products?

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.

samsung galaxy round (3)
The Samsung Galaxy Round

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.

A Samsung executive demonstrates the company's flexible OLED displays at the International CES show in January.

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.

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