The next iteration of Samsung's (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) flagship phablet, the Galaxy Note 4, will come in two varieties. The first is the typical successor -- as one might imagine, Samsung has boosted the Note's internal specs, improved its camera, and constructed its frame out of new materials.
However, the second -- the Galaxy Note Edge-- is something quite different: the first smartphone with a display that curves.
Reactions to Samsung's Edge have been mixed -- a gimmick, some have said, nothing more. While that may ultimately prove to be the case, it's also possible that Samsung has stumbled on to the next great hardware innovation, one that it will need to stay ahead of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).
The Note 4 vs the Note Edge
In terms of specs, there's not much of a difference between Samsung's new Notes -- they both feature the same processor, memory, and camera. Instead, the difference centers on the phone's display: The screen on the Note Edge curves around the right side, creating a separate, second display that gives the Note Edge its name.
Like a second computer monitor, the Note Edge's side panel works independently of the primary display, able to showcase information even when the phone's screen is dimmed. Samsung has said the Note Edge's side panel will be customizable and open to third party app developers, allowing for a contextual experience. When Samsung's camera app is in use, for example, the side panel hosts the shutter button, allowing the main display to focus entirely on the image being captured.
Ultimately, the success of the Note Edge could depend more on third party developers than Samsung itself -- if developers take advantage of Samsung's unique hardware to offer a superior experience, users may be drawn to Samsung's new phone. If they don't, the lack of content could render the innovation useless.
Samsung's investment in OLED could pay off
Customers that purchase the Note Edge might find the feature useful, but Samsung as a company could benefit the most. The South Korean tech giant has long been a proponent of OLED display technology, and has invested billions in it over the years. Samsung uses OLED for everything from its Galaxy mobile devices to its high-end, flat screen TVs.
In contrast, rival Apple uses LCD panels for its iPhone and iPad screens, with Apple's CEO Tim Cook going so far as to openly criticize the quality of OLED displays. To be fair, OLED certainly has it drawbacks, but the technology has one big advantage over LCD: It's more flexible. LCD can be bent, in theory, but it's much more difficult to do so. If Samsung's Galaxy Note Edge catches on, its investment in OLED could certainly pay off.
Samsung's rival LG has also been a major proponent of OLED, and if the Note Edge gains traction, its hard to imagine Samsung's phone remaining peerless for too long. Still, like the original Note in 2011, Samsung -- at least for now -- has a phone that its rivals cannot match.
The original Note offers a potent counterexample to any who would write off Samsung's Edge as gimmick. When it was initially unveiled, the 5.3-inch (tame by today's standards) Note was popularly dismissed as an oversized prop. But obviously, the concept caught on, establishing a new standard that, three years later, Apple was forced to follow.
Can Samsung stay ahead of Apple?
With Apple finally releasing a pair of larger iPhones, many analysts have openly wondered if the days of Samsung's mobile dominance are nearing their end. Intuitively, it makes sense -- if customers chose Samsung's Galaxies primarily because they were larger, they may be inclined to buy Apple's new iPhones instead.
Samsung may need to continue innovating, hardware wise, to retain its customers. With the Note Edge it has done that, though only time will tell if Samsung's new offering is the next must-have feature or a useless gimmick.