For years now, I dreamed of a mobile device with a huge screen, but in a compact form factor. And one way to get there is using a flexible display. Imagine curling up your iPhone or Android device and putting in your pocket, or donning wearable tech that fits around your wrist, but can be straightened for use on demand.
Corning, a leader in glass technology best known for its Gorilla Glass, knows a thing or two about it. The company developed Willow glass, a head-turning medium that can actually be rolled like a newspaper. It shipped samples out to phone, tablet and television manufacturers last June, to give the tech makers a chance to play with it, and at the time Corning was optimistic we'd see something come to market perhaps this year. Now Corning President James Clappin says it probably won't happen for at least three years.
In an interview in Beijing, Clappin suggested that it wasn't because the glass isn't ready, but because companies still don't know quite what to do with it. "People are not accustomed to glass you roll up," he says. "The ability of people to take it and use it to make a product is limited." There may be a few basic Willow integrations in things like solar panels or underneath capacitive screens, but as far as fully rollable smartphones go, we're not quite there yet.
Of course, that doesn't stop Corning from manufacturing the glass. And, says Clappin, it's going out of its way to train "very big name" clients on how to handle those spools. He wouldn't clarify what that meant, but given the company's push for Willow and its track record — Gorilla Glass is used in more than 1 billion devices — its three-year prediction stands a good chance of being legitimate. By then, of course, we could all be wearing Google Glass or an Apple smartwatch, or carrying something else from the likes of Samsung, LG or Nokia, which are working on their own versions of the bendy technology.
One way or another, we're on the cusp of some exciting changes. With wearable tech initiatives picking up steam and advancements in components — from Willow glass to foldable batteries — our mobile lives may look very different very soon. Exactly how this will pan out is anyone's guess, but what is clear is that the next few years will be key. It's as clear as the glass on your phone.
CNET caught up with Corning's Willow at CES 2013 (below). Take note that at the time, the company thought we'd see consumer products in early 2014.