You know that a smartphone manufacturer has a hit on their hands when, the very first time you see a render of a new device, you experience a slight hitch in your breathing. Or, to put it another way, the product has, ever so briefly, taken your breath away. It happens pretty rarely in today’s ultra competitive, high-end mobile market, but it happened with me the first time I saw the new Samsung Galaxy Note Edge — complete with a curved section of the screen that acts much like a secondary display.
The shape of the screen is based on the Youm design concept that the Korean OEM showed off almost two years ago, at CES 2013, wherein the bezel-less right side of the screen tapers downward and forms a long, thin strip of display that functions as a ticker of sorts. The visual effect it conveys upon viewing the device face-on is nothing short of breathtaking; like those infinite pools, this OLED panel gracefully curves down into what Samsung hopes is a value-adding companion screen.
And that’s where the problem lies. While the screen is beyond visually interesting, and harkens a future of completely bezel-less devices, its actual utility to consumers is far from proven. Also remaining to be seen: whether or not a strip of display with completely different content on it proves distracting when viewing the primary portion of the innovative screen. If the information contained therein is pertinent to the main content, it could serve as a real boon to productivity: think of the utility gained when you move to a dual monitor desktop setup with plenty of room for all your Photoshop toolbars.
On the other hand, Samsung has tried a similar concept before, albeit executed quite differently, in 2010’s Continuum on Verizon. Another “innovative” handset, this one contained a bespoke ticker at the bottom of the screen, feeding the user information distinct from the on-screen app. In fact, it was learned, the Continuum did not actually have two screens at all, but rather a single panel divided by a thin black line. But that’s neither here nor there; the point is that this secondary display on an already small device did not add much functionality for the end user on a day-to-day basis, and after a ho-hum critical and commercial reception, the concept was never revived on future phones — until the Note Edge came along.
Now to be fair, Samsung seems to be banking more on the success of this form factor than the faux dual-screen action we saw on the Continuum. It’s released an SDK for the display strip, and it’s hoping that the development community can come up with innovative uses that the home team engineers never envisioned when designing the product. The challenge for Samsung is that, as Mikael Ricknas points out in an Computerworld column today, developer interest will hinge almost entirely on the popularity, the success, of the device. And since Edge is likely to hit retail priced even higher than the already-ultra-premium Note 4, sales may be limited to those who absolutely need cutting edge technology and form factors, nevermind the cost. It should also be noted that Samsung only plans on releasing this device in “select markets,” meaning that it’s likely much of the world will never even get to experience the innovative design.
Taking a look at past curved screen devices — and there have only been two significant ones so far, the Samsung Galaxy Round and LG G Flex — the results have been pretty mediocre, maybe not in sales as much as in utility. (While the Galaxy Round was never sold outside Samsung’s domestic market of South Korea, the G Flex saw a much wider release, and seemed to pique the public’s interest judging by reactions to news items about its impending arrival.) It’s true that both companies tried to make some use of the (different-style) gentle curve in the displays, but the fact is that neither company was able to come up with anything close to a killer app or killer use for a component that has served perfect well for many years as a completely flat surface.
So while it may be unfair to call the Edge gimmicky until a third-party ecosystem of apps begins to accrue — or not accrue — I don’t have high hopes for the success of this form factor, at least not framed in a way that promises added functionality. Instead, I think we may see curved displays, or portions of displays, produced simply for the aesthetic effect they deliver. It’s become clear that many consumers have a great distaste for screen bezels, and a modified version of the Note Edge’s technology could eventually enable a handset that is true edge-to-edge screen. Kudos to Samsung for taking a bold step here with such a high profile brand of theirs, though, and I do hope that this won’t be the last boundary-pushing form factor we see from the company.
Read next: Samsung Galaxy Note Edge – First Hands On