Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has always been a trendsetter. The first iMacs were a splash of color in a gray and beige PC world. The first iPhone raised the bar for what a smartphone could and should be. The iPad? Another market created from scratch, because Apple's tablet rewrote the rulebook for tablet computers.
But the iPad line has been around for nearly three years now. Every one of Apple's product categories has settled down in a pattern of refinement rather than revolution. Has Cupertino passed the baton to other tastemakers?
Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) would like to think that its Surface tablet sets a new standard in Apple's tablet stronghold. I'm not so sure. The Windows 8 software on it may be new, but the hardware looks rather familiar.
Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and friends keep pushing out better and faster tablets and smartphones -- but they're all simply improved versions of existing products. Nobody seems to expect a whole lot of new thinking in the mobile computing market anymore.
But Samsung might change all of that next year.
The South Korean electronics giant is working on smartphones with flexible OLED screens. This is not totally new; Sammy and OLED expert Universal Display (NASDAQ:OLED) have been at this game for many years now, with some of the research funded by military grants.
The difference is that Samsung now hopes to commercialize flexible screens in 2013, bringing actual phones to market. Universal Display had been hoping for announcements to that effect before the end of 2012 but had to defer that dream to next year.
Flexible screens would enable even thinner and lighter phones, and there's no limit to the new designs Samsung could dream up. Moreover, scratched and shattered screens would be a thing of the past when you're using these high-quality plastics. Handsets like these would be a breath of fresh air among the hundreds of rectangular glass slabs with rounded corners.
If Apple was working on something like this, you can bet that manufacturing partners and tech bloggers would be leaking rumors all over the Internet. But they're not.
It's safe to say that Samsung will blaze a new trail here. Nokia (NYSE:NOK) is also working up flexible-screen handsets, probably using Samsung's screen modules. Apple is watching others raise the smartphone bar right now.
Will flexible screens catch on and force Cupertino to follow suit? That's up to the early models to decide. Another novelty feature won't matter one iota, but it's a game changer if the screens change the way you'd use the phone -- in a good way.