Too Far Ahead of the Curve?

Imperial Furniture Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Imperial Furniture Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My former employers used (I’m stressing used here ) to like my tech stories because they had never heard about the stuff I wrote about before, which was considered good. But in later years as the editors were replaced by other, saner heads, and there were grumbles.

Write about what’s happening now, not what’s going to happen, was usually the refrain. They had a point. But I didn’t think that was my job, and I still don’t. But it does raise a question which journalists in any field often have to address: When is the right time to write about something that you know will happen, but hasn’t happened yet?

Take curved and foldable screens.

We have the former already, in TVs and the occasional Samsung mobile phone. And the excellent and venerated Tim Bajarin, who has watched this world since the early 1980s, writes in Tech.pinions this week (subscription required) about Samsung being about to introduce their first foldable smartphone. His headline says it all: Apple’s Foldable iPhone Patents and the Inevitability of Foldable Displays

He points to a patent that Patently Apple wrote about which specifically covered a foldable iPhone — submitted to the patent office years ago. “That means,” Tim writes, “that Apple has been working on a foldable iPhone for quite some time and this is not a knee-jerk reaction to Samsung doing a foldable phone now.” While Tim is more interested in the legal implications, I’m more interested in the journalistic implications — when is it too soon to write about these things?

Well, I wrote about flexible displays for Reuters back in 2013, and I was by no means a trailblazer:

The touted arrival this year of wearable gadgets such as computer displays strapped to wrists and in wrap-around glasses is just a step towards a bigger revolution in screens – those that can be bent, folded and rolled up.

Once freed from today’s relatively heavy, breakable and fixed glass displays, tomorrow’s devices may look very different, with screens that can be rolled out, attached to uneven surfaces, or even stretched.

But there’s still some way to go.

“It becomes a product designer’s paradise – once the technology is sorted out,” says Jonathan Melnick, who analyses display technology for Lux Research.

There is no shortage of prototypes – South Korea’s Samsung Electronics this year showed off a display screen that extends from the side of a device – but obstacles remain: overcoming technical issues, figuring out how to mass produce parts cheaply, and coming up with devices compelling enough for gadget buyers.

The story went on in that vein. I didn’t really tease out anything new, but if I had cared to look I would have found that Apple was filing patents around that time on flexible displays, which became the basis of its later more elaborate patent filings. This one, for example, was filed on April 20, 2012, a year before my story, and was titled “Electronic devices with flexible displays having fastened bent edges”.

My argument as a technology journalist is that it’s never too early to write about a technology if you can prove that it’s real — that means, are there people investing in it, turning it into something that can be practical used? It doesn’t have to be generating revenue, it doesn’t have to have a business model, it doesn’t have to have a customer, it doesn’t even have to have a tried and tested use case. But if I was someone making investment decisions I would prefer to know that somewhere down the track — and I would hope the journalist would give me an idea of how far that track might be in the story — this technology is going to find its way to market. I wouldn’t want to wait. My argument — and they were quite frequently arguments — was that if we waited until usual newsroom yardsticks applied, we would never write about Facebook, Google, Baidu, Alibaba, Uber, Airbnb, Netflix or any of these industry-shifting companies until they’d already shifted industries.

But five years? Was that too early? I don’t think so, but I’m biased.

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All opinions are my own, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters.

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