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Samsung, not Apple, could start the next great smartphone trend

Although Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF)  is often derided for copying Apple  (NASDAQ: AAPL ) , the South Korean handset maker has been responsible for at least one major trend in the smartphone industry: the phablet. Samsung’s original Galaxy Note was the first popular over-sized phone, and many of its competitors (like LG, Sony, and HTC) have followed with similar devices.

Samsung could be planning to do it again: Its recently unveiled Galaxy Round will be the first smartphone with a curved display. Like phablets, curved displays could become the next big thing.

Curved displays and over-sized phones

At first glance, Samsung’s Galaxy Round may seem ridiculous. Who on earth needs a curved phone? The flat-slate design has served the market quite well over the last five years; putting a curve in the device seems pointless.

Ultimately, that might turn out to be the case. Offhand, I can think of a number of problems Samsung’s curved phone might present: imagine the phone easily rolling off a car’s dashboard, or struggling to fit into an arm-band accessory.

But at the same time, the curved form factor could present some advantages. The screen on Samsung’s Galaxy Round may be less likely to crack when dropped, while it could be easier to fit the device into a pocket.

At any rate, I would remind incredulous readers to consider early reactions to Samsung’s original Galaxy Note. BGR’s Jonathan Geller called the phone “too big,” and predicted that buyers would be “laughed at” and would be “unhappy” with their over-sized device.

In retrospect, Geller is the one worth laughing at. Samsung’s Note went on to sell millions, and its follow-up, the Note 2, was even larger and sold more. Other companies jumped on the trend, and Apple is rumored to have a phablet in the works.

Google’s open model vs. Apple’s closed ecosystem

When it comes to smartphone operating systems, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG)  and Apple take a very different approach. While Google has chosen to give Android away for free, letting dozens of different manufacturers release handsets running Google’s operating system, Apple has remained in control of iOS, keeping it confined strictly to its own device.

As a company, Apple has always emphasized the closed hardware/software model, arguing that it allows for a better user experience. In contrast, Google’s model is similar to the one long-championed by Microsoft: Google focuses on software, while its partners do the hardware.

There are many drawbacks to Google’s strategy. For one, mobile developers are less likely to support Google’s operating system — the variety of hardware configurations makes it more difficult to code for than Apple’s iOS. Also, there are many cheap, junky Android phones that weaken the image of Google’s operating system.

But what Google’s model does allow for is increased hardware innovation. Android handset makers, in their quest to compete against Apple and each other, have introduced a number of new concepts. In addition to Samsung’s phablets and now curved phone, there’s Sony’s lineup of water-resistant devices, LG’s phone with its rear-mounted buttons, and Motorola’s fully customisable casing.

Sure, Apple pioneered the slate concept and has popularised other features, like its new fingerprint scanner, but because Apple has to make both devices and software, it simply can’t move as fast as its numerous Android rivals.

The next big thing?

Samsung’s curved phone could turn out to be the next big thing, or could just be another goofy concept that everyone quickly forgets about. Either way, it serves to highlight the company’s willingness to innovate with its hardware.

That rapid pace of hardware innovation — employed by Samsung and other Android manufacturers — underscores Google’s greatest strength when it comes to its mobile strategy. Apple is already criticised for failing to follow the phablet trend in a timely fashion; will curved phones be the next big thing Apple misses out on?

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A version of this article, written by Sam Mattera, originally appeared on fool.com.

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