Inside G Flex: LG's long, winding road to setting the curve

CNET takes you through the five-plus-year process of developing the phone and explains why it's critical to LG's success.

LG's G Flex hit stores today. CNET

With the curvy G Flex, it's LG -- and not Apple -- that is showing it can "think different."

The G Flex, which arrives in the US via Sprint stores on Friday, with AT&T and T-Mobile following suit in the next few days, shakes up the normal conventions of the flat, rectangular slab of a touch-screen device pioneered by the iPhone. It was one of two curved phones that debuted late last year, the other being Samsung Electronics' Galaxy Round.

The immediate benefit is obvious: The curved design better conforms to your face, offers a better video-viewing experience, and theoretically a superior sound. Longer term, the G Flex sets the groundwork for a fully flexible, and far more durable, smartphone. Perhaps most important, however, may be the phone's ability to bend the perception of LG itself.

The company, which has long languished in the shadow of the larger and flashier Samsung, could be poised for a breakout year. With hits such as the Google-branded Nexus 5 and the G2, and now the G Flex, LG could finally shed its also-ran status in mobile and inject some serious competitive pressure in a field dominated by Apple and Samsung.

"A high-profile hero phone, first to market in its form factor, could really help reset people's expectations and confidence in LG, and it is hitting at a good time," said Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD.

Mobile was a bright spot when LG reported its fourth-quarter results on Monday, with the unit seeing sales rise 28 percent. The company shipped a record 13.2 million smartphones in the period, up 54 percent from a year ago.

LG's steady progress comes in contrast to the myriad companies that have struggled to turn a profit at a time when consumers are primarily flocking to an iPhone or Galaxy S smartphone. Even Google ended up dumping Motorola Mobility onto Lenovo after successive quarters of losses. LG's share of the global market rose to 4.5 percent from 4 percent a year ago, according to Strategy Analytics. That's tiny relative to Apple or Samsung, yes, but it's growing at a time when other players are seeing their position erode.

The G Flex could potentially accelerate its ascent. It is by no means a guaranteed blockbuster, with its 6-inch display potentially turning off consumers agitated by the "phablet" category of oversized phones and its $300 on-contract price tag steeper than the normal flagship device. It also lacks the marketing heft of Samsung or the rabid following of Apple.

Still, it has won some critical praise, including from CNET editor Lynn La, who said in her review that the G Flex was a "memorable device with plenty of potential," and called the curved shape "more than just a party trick."

Even if it ends up as a niche product, it will have achieved what LG has long sought: legitimate buzz. As I've written before, LG's biggest public image problem is that it doesn't have one. It makes decent phones, including several worthy budget models, but is barely on anyone's radar.

LG certainly has a lot riding on the G Flex. It has spent more than five years developing the phone, coming up with the concept and driving different lines of LG's businesses to help make it a reality. LG envisions G Flex to be the start of something big for the company.

"Curved phones are a major branch of our tree," said Chul Bae Lee, head of design for LG Mobile. In a recent interview with CNET, Lee, who is responsible for the hardware and software of the G Flex, discussed the origins of the smartphone and the future of bendable phones.

Because we can...
The G Flex was started on a whim.

Chul Bae Lee, vice president and head of LG's mobile communications design. LG

Well, LG probably wouldn't characterize it so flippantly, as the phone required years of planning and a massive amount of cooperation with different parties. More than five years ago, a small group of designers began looking at where mobile phone design was headed and began playing with the idea of phones that were flexible, foldable, and ones that you could even roll. After countless meetings and discussions about what was and wasn't feasible, they ultimately just made the decision to go with it.

"It was a starting point for us," Lee said. "We figured if we can do it, we should try it."

The problem: The unique parts necessary to build such a phone didn't yet exist.

Which is one of the primary reasons why the G Flex is unique. Typically, a smartphone -- even a high-end one -- is designed and built using components that are available, or at least visibly coming down the road.

LG, like Samsung, is a massive conglomerate with its hands in multiple businesses, several of which provide key components to various smartphone companies. Over the past few years, LG has begun to more fully take advantage of the resources of its sister units.

The Optimus G, for example, was hailed as the first smartphone to use top-shelf LG-made components, including the battery from LG Chemical, the screen from LG Display, and the camera module from LG Innotek.

But the Optimus G used the best parts available. For the G Flex, LG Electronics had to push its sister companies to come up with something new. It's a subtle, but significant difference.

"We didn't create this after five months of thinking," Lee said. "We've been prepping for a long time."

In fact, it wasn't until two years later that designers from LG Electronics began talking to LG Display about using plastic (OLED) screens that could bend.

Lee's team came up with more than 100 mock-ups of the phone, all utilizing different curves. The company ultimately decided to go with the same curve radius as the current curved OLED TV, which LG touted as the world's first such television.

"It's similar to a movie-viewing experience," Lee said.

By 2012, a year after going to LG Display, the team went to LG Chemical to get the unit to design and build special curved batteries that would conform to the new shape. Several months later, LG talked to engineers at Corning to create a version of its Gorilla Glass 2 that would form the protective layer around the touch screen.

The Wolverine of phones
Not as flashy as the curved design, but perhaps just as noteworthy, is the G Flex's ability to "heal" from minor scratches and nicks.

The feature was born out of a concern for the wear and tear the back cover would take when continually placed on a table or desk. Because of the curved design, all of the weight would bear down on a single line at the center. LG had initially considered metal, but dismissed it quickly as too expensive.

Minor scratches will heal over time when exposed to heat and sunlight. Josh Miller/CNET

LG found the solution from a company that also supplied automaker Nissan with its own self-healing polymer clear coat first applied to one of its Infiniti models in 2008 under the term "Scratch Shield." Kyle Bazemore, a representative from Infiniti, compared the protective layer to human skin's ability to heal after a cut. In this case, all you need is exposure to sunlight.

LG licensed the technology from an unnamed company that supplies the same self-healing coat, but its own engineers did some work to tweak the feature so it was unique to the company, Lee said. He declined to elaborate further, and LG has been hush about the specifics of the technology.

There are limitations: Deep scratches that go beyond the top layer won't heal, and the healing process itself takes a while and requires light and heat. Is it a little gimmicky? Sure.

Still, for anyone worried about the everyday dings and scratches a phone inevitably picks up, this feature provides a little peace of mind.

Oohhs and aahhs
LG's introduction of the G Flex to its potential carrier customers was a little different than the standard product demonstration. When Sprint sat down with LG at last year's Mobile World Congress to get its first glimpse of the phone, the carrier took steps to limit the team members who were aware of the product and held information about the phone a little closer to the vest than normal.

"In a way, not all devices are treated equally," Lois Fagen, the director for Sprint's wireless devices portfolio, said in an interview with CNET.

Sprint is pinning its hopes on phones like the G Flex, which can tap into its more advanced LTE network. Lynn La/CNET

It was Fagen, Fared Adib, then the company's senior vice president of product development, and David Owens, the head of consumer acquisition, who attended the meeting with LG. They had a chance to pore over the phone, flexing it, and asking questions as they passed it between each other. LG's team, meanwhile, brought out the whole dog-and-pony show to explain the design philosophy behind the G Flex.

The Sprint executives were impressed.

"There was a lot more oohhing and aahhing," Fagen told CNET. "That's not typical."

According to Fagen, it wasn't a tough sell for Sprint, with many pleased with the fact that it looked different than the typical touch-screen smartphone.

Sprint is eager to bulk up its product portfolio with some eye-catching options. That G Flex is a Sprint Spark phone, compatible with the carrier's enhanced LTE network -- only available in a few select markets -- is another benefit.

"I think LG has great potential," Fagen said. "This helps LG garner some additional attention."

Riding the curve upward
We constantly yearn for the unique and new, but often recoil with skepticism and caution when something genuinely different arrives at our front door.

This is a central dilemma facing the G Flex: Will consumers take a chance on something new or stick to their comfortable -- and reliable -- iPhones and Galaxy S smartphones?

Fagen acknowledged that the $650 off-contract price and $300 contract price were on the high end, but noted that there's always an initial investment into new technology. Prices for these kinds of devices will fall over time. While the focus has been on the designs, critics note the screen resolution and camera are less competitive, and LG's software touches aren't much of an improvement over stock Android.

As with the G2, the G Flex may suffer from a lack of marketing support and consumer awareness. While Sprint is enthusiastic about the device, it doesn't have any concrete plans to promote it. AT&T and T-Mobile will also offer it, but there's no indication the G Flex will get any special promotion at those carriers either.

"I think its value is in what it can do for the rest of the product line," NPD's Baker said, adding a new design is the best way to stand out in a stagnant market.

LG, meanwhile, isn't the only one to experiment with curved phones. A few weeks before the G Flex debuted, Samsung beat LG to the punch with the Galaxy Round, a curved phone that bends at its vertical axis, rather than the horizontally curved G Flex. So far, no US carriers have bit on the Galaxy Round, which has drawn questions about whether it is different for the sake of being different.

"Based on our observations, a phone with that type of curve direction didn't have much practical appeal," Lee said, noting that LG had considered this design back at the prototype stage. He did acknowledge that it would be more comfortable in the hand, but saw few other benefits.

"The market and consumers will be the judge as to whether we made the right decision," he said.

For LG, the G Flex is a chance to stand out. Yes, it has the G2, but at the most fundamental level, it's really just another in a long line of nice Android smartphones. It's seen a lot of success with the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5, but much of it can be attributed to brand power that Google commands. There's also no guarantee LG will continue to make Nexus phones for the Internet titan.

For the industry, the success or failure of the G Flex and the Galaxy Round could set the tone for how aggressive companies will be in introducing unique, if risky, new designs. As for truly bendable or foldable phones, Lee said that while there are many technical hurdles to such a device, he is working with experts to make this a reality in a few years.

"As the market seems to be open minded to the flexible/curved trend, we'll continue to demonstrate our prominent position in the flexible smartphone segment," Lee said.

LG is hoping that prominent position will lead to a little more time in the spotlight. It can only help.

Corrected at 4:47 a.m. PT: LG licensed the self-healing clear coat technology from the same company that also provided Nissan with its Scratch Shield coat. The story previously said LG licensed the technology from Nissan directly.

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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