OLED smartphones head back to the drawing board

Smartphone industry observers have been saying flexible OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens were poised to overtake over the market for years. Here’s why they haven’t but are still being promoted.

The smartphone market has been one of the fastest growing in the world with technological advancements gaining the competitive edge each year until 2018 when sales flatlined. Manufacturers forecasting saw this in 2017 so flexible OLED screens, which had been on most “nonpriority” drawing boards for a decade, were fast tracked to prime the market’s engine.

But the problems with the first flexible screens were just as quick — and dire. Flexible OLED was supposed to create a seamless display with no creases. But if customers could set aside the identity crisis aspect of unfolding a smartphone to reveal a full-sized tablet screen, their immediate and apparent fragility could not be ignored.

The technology available today requires a hermetic seal for this kind of flexible screen to function. Manufacturers applied permanent screen protectors which unfortunately consumers took as temporary, thereby damaging the display just moments after purchase. Also, the physics of folding the phone required a feat of hinge engineering that could not prevent debris from infiltrating the screen. Finally, just plain recklessness on the part of users trying to fold the phone where the hinge was not located created further chaos about the design of the phones altogether.

In short, there were multiple catastrophic failures right in the hands of users in stores and at home. Rather than slow their roll, manufacturers enacted broad but ineffective damage control measures, so the increased sales never appeared. Meanwhile rigid OLEDs on smartphones became even cheaper, larger, and more sophisticated as a result of the flexible market cratering.

Manufacturers remain to this day unable to admit it as a market failure and say they have met the challenges described above, so you will see more flexible OLED screens on smartphones in 2020.