Retro handsets, flexible devices: the future of phones will bend the rules

The return of Nokia and a new BlackBerry might tap an appetite for nostalgia, but the recent Mobile World Congress also showed us a glimpse of the future – super-thin and completely flexible displays

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 4:02pm

Are you bored with your phone? The industry clearly thinks you are, because 2017 is rapidly becoming known as the year of the novelty phone.

It all started with nostalgia. The Nokia 3310, a handset first sold back in the year 2000, is currently the most talked-about phone. In a stroke of genius bordering on madness, manufacturer HMD Global decided that resurrecting a 2.4-inch phone with polyphonic ring tones was a suitable way to announce the rebirth of the Nokia brand. Unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona recently, the Nokia 3310 got a lot of attention – perhaps to the detriment of the brand’s Nokia 3, 5 and 6 budget handsets – but it wasn’t the only retro phone on show.

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BlackBerry’s comeback as a brand has seen the launch of the KeyOne, a keyboard-endowed Android smartphone, which will certainly appeal to a niche. The KeyOne uses what looks like an old-fashioned hard-button keyboard, though its sensors allow all kinds of gestures and swipes.

If incoming BlackBerry phones are more modern than they look, that’s not the case with Alcatel’s A5 LED, a phone whose LED-studded back cover makes it seem just as brave a concept as reviving a 17-year old feature-phone.

Inspired by retro stereo systems and live concerts, the back cover lights up in a pattern that responds to the beat of the music. Give it a shake and the pattern changes. It does other strange things, too; notifications can be set to initialise a custom LED pattern; a WhatsApp message comes through as a green W, a Gmail as a red G, Facebook as a blue F.

The A5 LED also revives the modular concept with various “smart covers” available, including a cover with speakers built-in and a battery case that doubles the power.

“With only three additional modules released for the A5 LED, features are limited compared to other modular phone designers, such as Motorola,” says James Manning Smith, information analyst at Futuresource, in the wake of the Mobile World Congress.

Lenovo last year announced its Motorola Moto Z with Moto Mods, cases that add speakers, an extra battery or even a projector.

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“While Motorola continues to push the modular smartphone concept, other manufactures have departed from it,” says Manning Smith. “Modular smartphones haven’t yet been proven as a successful product category, but with Alcatel adopting the design and Motorola continuing to release new Moto Mods, the concept has been refreshed.”

Such trends are about smartphones seeking attention in an era of creeping “phablet fatigue” – slim, black slabs of metal and glass, whose major selling point is that they look sleek and modern, are getting more difficult to sell.

“It’s hard to stand out in the mid-range,” says William Dowie, portfolio director at Alcatel’s Global Marketing & Products Centre. “We know the innovation curve in mobile is slowing down a little bit and everyone’s trying to get noticed.”

Cue the unexpected popularity of the Nokia 3310. “It’s a nice talking point for people looking for ways to make a statement, and maybe get a second device,” says Dowie, suggesting that since many of us now own big, tablet-like smartphones there could be an opportunity for more compact, basic products as second phones.

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“Most people are using WhatsApps and Facebook to communicate and make calls, and people aren’t as tied to their SIM any more, so a companion phone could just have apps and be connected to WiFi,” says Dowie, who adds that such devices would need very simple architecture, so would be cheap.

Being cheap, retro and fun might be the fashion at one end of the market, but at the other end the big global brands are struggling to come up with convincing innovations to tempt even loyal customers to upgrade to the latest model.

Most flagship phones announced so far this year – notably from Sony, LG, Huawei and ZTE – do have a luxe feature or two. The newly announced Huawei P10 has a Leica dual lens setup, which is firmly on-trend.

“You’ll see dual cameras on every flagship phone in 2017,” says Dowie. “The camera is still one of the most important things about a phone.”

Bezel-less designs, the ability to record 4K resolution video, 4K displays and even HDR video playback adorn the likes of the Sony Xperia Premium XZ, LG G6 and Huawei P10. HDR stands for high dynamic range, which means a much, much larger colour palette.

Would you pay for HDR? Perhaps when all streaming video sites have adopted it, but as we all know with smartphones, it’s what’s on the outside that really counts. Bigger capacity phones and smarter charging batteries are a definite trend this year, but so are OLED screens and edge-to-edge, top to bottom displays. That gets more important when you size up to a 6-inch smartphone; you don’t want to be adding much around the sides of something so big.

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However, beyond this tinkering there’s an all-new design movement imminent – flexible, bendable and even foldable phones are coming.

Far from the major brands at the Mobile World Congress was British company FlexEnable, which was demonstrating its full colour, graphene-based mechanical pixel system for e-ink displays that could be used to make a paper-thin Kindle. Its key technical advance is its use of plastic instead of silicon on its circuit boards.

“We are using printed graphene instead of indium titanium oxide, which is brittle, replacing some of the metal conductors to make the devices more flexible,” says Rouzet Agaiby, senior business development engineer at FlexEnable.

“Although we make plastic electronics, we still depend on some silicon in our devices to do the driving or the reading, but once you’re able to have this functionality fully on plastic you can print all your devices on plastic.”

It’s now clear that the tech that will enable flexible displays is now rushing from development labs, and that rigid phones could soon be a thing of the past.

There are rumours that LG, Samsung, Xiaomi and even Apple could be on the verge of unveiling flexible, bendable and even foldable phones very soon.

LG last year invested heavily in new production line to make flexible OLED screens for smartphones, while a Shenzhen-based display company called Royole Corporation recently unveiled its fully flexible FlexPhone screen that’s a mere 0.01mm thick.

In January, Japan Display Inc showed a new flexible, crack-resistant, 5.5-inch LCD screen called Full Active Flex, which uses a plastic substrate.

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Meanwhile, Samsung seems on the verge of launching a phone with a curved AMOLED display, and recently filed a patent for a foldable screen. It may use cutting-edge technology, but it does sound an awful lot like a flip-phone – and that’s surely the ultimate in retro.

Nostalgic designs may be all the rage, but aren’t truly flexible, roll-up phones and screens what we really want? Either way, incoming smartphones look set to begin bending the rules.