2017 has been a wonderful year for smartphone design – and more specifically, killing the bezel. After Xiaomi made waves with last year’s Mi Mix, LG and Samsung both had own takes on maximizing screen real estate – no to mention Andy Rubin’s new Essential phone.
Then there’s the iPhone 8 (or whatever it ends up being called) coming in a few months. The 10th anniversary iPhone is heavily rumored to do away with the bezels nearly completely, save for a miniscule strip at the top of the device for necessary sensors and speakers. At that point, it’s just a matter of diminishing returns. Eventually, someone will find a way to fill up that space too, essentially turning our phones into one massive touchscreen display.
So what do designers do next?
Though the original iPhone introduced the idea of a large (by 2007 standards) touchscreen, the bezel-less display truly became the holy grail of smartphones when Google and Samsung introduced the Galaxy Nexus in 2011.
It was the first phone to feature virtual navigation buttons, which would in theory allow device makers to one day create a device with no bezel. It’s the dream of ultimate efficiency: a phone with no wasted space.
Since then, we’ve seen phones with no bezels pop up every so often, though usually as concepts. Sharp beat most of today’s companies to the punch with its Aquos phone in 2014 (too bad it was pretty mediocre). The same company showed off a concept phone in 2016 with even smaller bezels.
Though some manufacturers have been hesitant to reduce bezels, you can bet every smartphone maker worth your money is going to try to one-up the S8 and iPhone 8 in the years to come. But as much as I can’t wait for this imminent bezel-free future, I’m even more excited for what comes after we’ve reached the limit.
After all, once designers and engineers can no longer fit ever larger screens into our hands, they’ll be forced to think more creatively. Sure, phones will continue to try to differentiate themselves with new materials and features, but we spend most of our time looking at our screens. It’s too important a feature to remain stagnant.
The smartphone screen will have to evolve. And we know manufacturers are already working on it.
Flexible screens are another mainstay at tech trade shows – even if manufacturers haven’t quite found a real use for them in smartphones. Lenovo showed off a couple of concept devices using the tech last year, including a wrist-band device and a phone that expanded into a tablet when unfolded.
That second idea seems likely to catch-on; it would be an easy way for manufacturers to continue the trend of fitting larger screens into handheld devices. It’s possible Microsoft will take that approach with the Surface Phone, if patents are anything to go by.
Perhaps phone makers will realize that handhelds can only take us so far, and it’s time to invest more strongly in more dramatically different form factors. VR and AR headsets seem likely candidates. They are still too bulky to be mainstream, but it’s only a matter of time that they’ll become as small as a pair of glasses, according to Mark Zuckerberg.
Or maybe the future of the smartphone belongs to another idea altogether. Whatever the case, it’s going to a fun ride. After years of trying to fill our handheld rectangles with the biggest screens possible, designers are going to have to think outside the box. Literally.
What do you think comes next?