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Apple and Samsung race to patent flexible smartphones

November 23, 2016
Images from Apple's U.S. Patent 9,504,170.

Images from Apple’s U.S. Patent 9,504,170 for a flexible display device.

Apple Inc. made news on November 22 when it was granted a U.S. patent for an iPhone design that uses a flexible OLED display and can fold in half like a man’s wallet. Gosh golly, right?

Actually Apple already has a few patents for folding touchscreen phones; this latest one—U.S. Patent No. 9,504,170 for “flexible display devices”, which Apple originally filed in 2014, is especially notable for employing both an OLED display as well as possibly nickel titanium alloy, aka, nitinol, which exhibits both shape memory and superelasticity.

An OLED display works without a backlight, so it displays deeper blacks and facilitates thinner and lighter hardware designs than a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). The organic light emitting diodes  (OLEDs) can also be bonded onto thin sheet plastic, allowing display screens that are flexible to a degree.

However, as the Guardian points out, Apple’s latest flexible iPhone patent shows a patently impossible degree of flexibility. OLED displays cannot currently fold perfectly flat like a piece of paper—not without leaving a permanent, damaging crease.

But that’s Apple; always trying to bend reality, always wanting its own way; always thinking different. Samsung’s latest effort along the same lines is a bit more…flexible, reality-wise.

Samsung’s less rigid approach to flexibility

Various images from Samsung's April 2016 patent for a "flexible device".

Images from Samsung’s April 2016 patent filing for a flexible device.

In March and April of 2016 Samsung filed two different patents with the Korean Intellectual Property Office, both for smartphones that can fold in half—screen and all.

Details and images from the March patent filing only appear on the Dutch website GalaxyClub, along with an unfortunately broken link to the patent filing itself.

However, Samsung’s original April patent filing for a “flexible device” is available. The filing is in the Korean language but its extensive illustrations, also first revealed on GalaxyClub speak volumes.

A succession of detailed images show a typical touchscreen phone form factor with a hard-shell body that employs an intricate, segmented hinge. This hinge allows the phone body and flexible OLED display to fold in half gently, without putting a crease in the display.

Closeup of the Surface Book hinge.—Microsoft

Closeup of the Surface Book hinge.—Microsoft

The hinge shown in the April Samsung flexible phone patent looks similar in method and result to the hinge used on the Microsoft Surface Book.

Samsung has applied for at least 40 patents relating to folding and/or flexible smartphones and displays, going back to 2012, according to the PatentlyMoble website. Tech watchers have been expecting the Korean tech giant to come out with a flexible smartphone any day now for the last few years.

But aside from the round-sided Edge smartphones and curved display monitors Samsung has yet to come out with a consumer product using a flexible OLED screen.

Apple, which has applied for relatively few flexible display device patents aver the years, does currently use a flexible OLED display in its Apple Watch.

In June, at Lenovo’s Tech World, the Chinese computer maker showed off actual, functioning engineering concepts of two foldable devices: a tablet-phone and a bendable wrist-phone. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Apple, Samsung, Windows

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