Can smartphones snap out of technological stupor?

The Associated PressDecember 14, 2013 

LG Electronics’ G Flex smartphone was displayed during a media event last month at its head office in Seoul, South Korea. Already available in Korea and Singapore, sales of the concave device expanded to Hong Kong on Friday.

LEE JIN-MAN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO — This may be remembered as the year smartphones became boring.

Although high-definition displays on smartphones have gotten bigger and their cameras have gotten better, the pace of gee-whiz innovation has dawdled.

Smartphone and software makers are working on ways to snap out of this technological lull, although it probably will be at least another year or two before breakthroughs revolutionize the design and function of mobile computing devices.

In a foreshadowing of things to come, LG Electronics Inc. is boasting about the G Flex, a new phone with a curved display. Previously available in Korea and Singapore, the concave device arrived in Hong Kong on Friday.

“We want to claim this as the future of smart devices,” Ramchan Woo, the head of LG’s mobile product planning division, said during a recent demonstration in San Francisco.

If such visions are realized, smartphones and tablets will be equipped with display screens that can be rolled up like a scroll or folded like a wallet.

Making the devices even easier to carry around will be important if software makers want to deepen the bond between people and their phones. That could happen as smarter tracking tools and voice-recognition technology let smartphones understand habits and thoughts like a family member.

The future smartphone “will be small enough to carry with you at all times without thinking about it, and it will be essential enough that you won’t want to get rid of it,” Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo said. “It will become a context engine. It will be aware of where it is, where you are going and what you need.”

The G Flex provides a peek at the shape of things to come. Despite its name, the G Flex isn’t pliable. The device is slightly bowed from top to bottom, allowing it to curve toward a person’s mouth when used for phone calls. It also has a curved battery, something LG says is a first for smartphones. LG applied a “self-healing” protective coat on the G Flex to automatically repair any minor scratches.

LG introduced the G Flex in its home country of South Korea last month for $940. LG wants to sell the G Flex in the U.S., but hasn’t set a date or price or reached distribution deals with any wireless carriers.

Samsung Electronics Inc. also is selling a concave smartphone there. Unlike the G Flex’s vertical bow, Samsung’s Galaxy Round curves horizontally from left to right when it’s held upright. With a price tag of about $1,000, the phone is more an expensive novelty than a mainstream product.

Like LG, Samsung is setting the stage for bigger things to come. Samsung Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-hyun told analysts last month that the company believes it can produce a mobile device with a foldable display by 2015.

An Apple Inc. blueprint for making a device with a curved display was granted a U.S. patent this week.

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