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Last Updated: Friday, 20 February, 2004, 11:12 GMT
Flexible displays on the horizon
The future will be flexible, as screens you can roll up and pop into a jacket pocket enter mass production, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson.

As anyone who knows me will agree, I find it hard to go through a week without quoting science fiction writer William Gibson's assertion that "the future has arrived - it's just unevenly distributed".

Flexible paper (Image: Philips)
Philips is pioneering flexible screen technology
I have always taken Gibson to mean that consumer technologies, like phones and TVs and computers, take a long time to develop and bring to market.

As a consequence, if you look at what's coming out of the labs or what technologies are available in very high end, exclusive products, you should be able to spot the stuff that is going to break through into the mass market.

It was true with the World Wide Web back in 1994, when those of us who were lucky enough to work on the early websites could see how much impact it was going to have.

It was true with wireless, although here the desire on the part of some to manufacture another dotcom boom around wi-fi hotspots has been a major distraction.

And now we can see another piece of the future - flexible, detachable and disposable screens.

New toys

Last week electronics manufacturer Philips announced the start of mass production of the world's most flexible display, a thin plastic film that can be rolled into a tube and popped into a jacket pocket.

After years of research, they have reached the point where they are ready to start selling the screens and have set up a new company, Polymer Vision, to do deals with computer manufacturers, handset makers and the rest of the electronics industry.

Bill Thompson
The first time someone on a train next to you downloads a document to their phone and then unrolls a good-sized display screen, you will notice and be impressed
The display is not exactly a substitute for a widescreen TV, since it is only 12 cm across, with 80,000 grey-scale pixels and a one second refresh rate.

But the first laptop I ever used, back in 1991 when I worked for the training company The Instruction Set, had a monochrome orange display and no hard drive - you had to boot it into DOS from a floppy disk and then swap disks to save your files.

The technology has come on rather a lot since then, not least because those early laptops were used by people to do useful work, and their presence in offices, on trains and even in cafes inspired others to want them and to start using them.

Those primitive laptops created a market, and the high prices paid by early adopters supported the sort of research and development that has given us massive hard drives, energy-efficient processors and high resolution full-colour displays.

Laptops also managed to leap the marketing gap between the relatively small and technologically sophisticated early users, the people who will buy almost any new toy because they like technology for its own sake or have more money than sense, and the mass market where price and performance are key.

Now they are ubiquitous - go into any cafe and you'll see four or five people tapping away, and there is more processing power on the Cambridge to London train, where I'm sitting now, than many countries had 25 years ago.

It seems pretty clear that flexible screens will go the same way.

Portable office

We now know it can be done, that a layer of organic-based semiconductor and e-ink can be stuck onto a plastic sheet and wired to a graphics chip to give a usable display.

Flexible paper (Image: Philips)
Eventually the displays are expected to be in colour
Having established the principle, the engineers involved will figure out how to make them bigger, clearer, more reliable and faster. They will make them work in colour too.

They may not be much, but the first time someone on a train next to you downloads a document to their phone and then unrolls a good-sized display screen so that they can read it in comfort, you will notice and be impressed.

And when you see someone unroll a screen and stick it to a table, then unpack a wireless keyboard and start typing away, it will start you thinking. Especially when you realise that the PDA that is controlling all of this activity is still in her jacket pocket, using Bluetooth to communicate with both devices and wi-fi to get online.

Up to now detachable displays have not really been worth having because the display is as bulky, awkward and fragile as the computer itself. That is about to change, and once it does we will see designers start taking advantage of the flexibility it offers.

Jonathan Ive, who designed the iMac, the iBook and the iPod, better sharpen his pencils because he is going to have a lot of interesting work to do in the next few years.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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