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South Korea’s Tech Giants Battle for Flexible Supremacy

If there were an award given for Most Innovative Company of the Year, Samsung (SSNLF) would be in pole position to claim the 2013 crown.

The South Korean tech giant has dominated the consumer tech world this year, with a flurry of groundbreaking product launches. For example…

~ A New Galaxy: In April, the company unveiled its Galaxy S4 smartphone. With impressive new features like eye-tracking technology, the phone wowed the market, with 20 million units sold in the two months after the phone’s launch.

~ A Curved Television: In August, Samsung showed off its work with Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technology when the company launched its first curved television. The main benefit of this technology is that it’s flexible… literally. In contrast to static displays, designers are able to manipulate the material, making it lightweight, thin and much tougher and more durable.

~ A Smart Watch: As we reported a few weeks ago, Samsung has beaten Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) to the punch by releasing its much-hyped Galaxy Gear smartwatch. As I noted, smartwatches already have a certain amount of popularity and “street cred,” given their fictional use in television shows and movies. Samsung knows this, too. If you’ve seen its just-released television commercial for the Galaxy Gear, there are head-nods towards interactive watches worn in “Knight Rider,” “Star Trek,” “The Jetsons” and “Inspector Gadget,” as the inspiration for the Galaxy Gear.

However, it’s received three main criticisms: It’s only compatible with the Galaxy Note 3… its display isn’t flexible… and it costs a hefty $299.

~ A Flexible Smartphone: On Tech & Innovation Daily’s launch day on December 18, 2012, I wrote, “There’s a revolution coming in 2013… the major players in the cellphone manufacturing world are scrambling to launch the market’s next wow-inducing innovation – flexible smartphones.”

Samsung just hit the “wow” button. Or so it hopes…

Samsung’s “Flex-and-Tilt” Technology

Just as Samsung beat its major rivals to the smartwatch market, it’s jumped ahead of the pack in the smartphone world, too.

The company has unveiled the world’s first flexible smartphone to hit the market – the Galaxy Round.

Weighing in at 5.4 ounces and just 7.9 millimeters thick, the Round boasts a 5.7-inch AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode) screen – the same size as the Galaxy Note 3, but significantly larger than the Galaxy S4’s five-inch display.

Demand for AMOLED screens continues to rise, due to the fact that their response time is faster, yet use less power – crucial factors for mobile devices.

The standout feature is the “Round Interaction,” which allows users to check things like the time and date, missed calls and battery life when you tilt the phone towards you – even when the home screen is off. And by tilting to the left or right, users can also scroll through their music and pictures.

Now for the sticker shock: Samsung has announced an exclusive deal with South Korea’s largest wireless carrier, SK Telecom (SKM), to sell the phone for the princely sum of $1,000.

Yeah… our eyes widened, too.

This is a real form vs. function issue.

A unique curved screen and some interesting new navigation features – definitely cool. And it’s clear that buyers will be paying for that novelty factor, in addition to the fact that it’s harder and takes longer to mass-produce such a curved design.

But for a starting price of $1,000? Samsung seems to be adopting the same bold pricing strategy as it has with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, hoping that people will be happy to pay for innovation. Time will tell.

No word yet on when the Round will be available elsewhere, but you can bet it will be on shelves in time for the holiday season.

And you can also bet that its rivals aren’t just going to sit back and admire Samsung’s innovation. In fact, the contest is already on…

LG Enters the Flexible Fray

As OLED and AMOLED technology continues to advance, it’s no surprise to see the tech sector’s heavyweights slugging it out for supremacy in this burgeoning field. They’ve done for a long time now – and it’s a battle that’s set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Samsung’s main South Korean rival, LG Display Co. (LPL), is also working on curved designs for consumer electronics. And it’s jumped into the smartphone fray, too.

As Samsung was announcing the Round, LG also said it’s started production on “the world’s first flexible OLED panel for smartphones.” Measuring six inches, the display is set on a thin, flexible plastic substrate, rather than glass, which allows the panel to curve.

The company also says this makes the panel the thinnest and lightest in the world for a smartphone and touts it as unbreakable. Bold claims.

While the rumor mill has buzzed about a November launch, LG’s Chief Technology Officer, Yeo Sang-Deog, has stated that the company will release “new products with enhanced performance and differentiated designs next year.”

There’s no doubt that this is innovative work from South Korea’s tech giants. Our bet here is that the initial novelty factor of flexible screens will be compelling. However, it remains to be seen whether this alone will be enough to sustain the buzz. Especially if the price nudges into four-digit territory.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

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