Before Apple released the original iPhone back in 2007 there was an incredible variety of designs in mobile phones. Just look at of these, from Nokia alone:
The iPhone is released, and it's a veritable meteor that kills off all the dinosaurs in one big boom. Suddenly phones had to be all-screen rectangles, and fair enough, it's a very versatile and robust design. But the competition has irreversibly changed from "who can make an interesting phone that stands out" to "who can make the thinnest phone with the largest of screen-to-body ratio".
Why? I dunno... flashy props in sci-fi shows told us that is the future.
In the race to thinness, we've lost the headphone jack. I get it - it takes a fair amount of space inside the phone, space that you don't have if you want to make a phone that (you think) consumers want. I personally love bluetooth headphones so it's not that of a huge deal for me, but there are people out there who might actually require it. They don't care that it's 1mm thinner than it would have been with the headphone jack. They just won't buy your phone.
Similarly, in the race to kill the screen bezels, we got the notch dumped upon us. At first I was OK with it since it does look quite futuristic. Although I couldn't quote you a source, I'm sure I've seen tablets and other devices with irregularly-shaped screens in sci-fi movies. But then I soured towards it, and it wasn't because it literally cuts a piece off your screen or because it's ugly.
I'm not a fan of the notch because it already feels dated. In just a few years when we're all walking around with edge-to-edge phones that give us paper cuts, we'll look back at this time as the dark ages of the notch. We hadn't quite figured out how to make edge-to-edge displays, and had to resort to cutting into them instead. The notch is a stepping stone towards the future. It's not a feature that enables anything special, but a dull necessity that we need to fall back on because we're not advanced enough.
So why do we need the notch? Generally phones stick selfie cameras and various sensors back there, specifically what varies per manufacturer. Perhaps the screen needs some connection points there too, but this is usually handled by a thicker bezel at the bottom of the phone. That's it. You have a notch because the selfie camera is VERY IMPORTANT.
In 2019 we're starting to see "punchhole" designs where the camera peeks out from a small hole in the screen. Make no mistake, this is just a notch in another form and yet another stepping stone towards all-screen-no-notch designs.
The upcoming Galaxy S10 from Samsung sports this punchhole design, and I gotta admit, it's a lot more palatable than a notch:
Don't get me wrong; progress is great, and I'm looking forward to seeing all-screen designs. The notch and the punchhole are just iterations to reach this goal. But that's just the thing - they're not any kind of new technology. I'm sure we've been able to cut pieces off a screen since screens were invented. I'm not even convinced that it is necessary to have a few notches before arriving at the all-screen destination, everyone is just doing it because Apple did it. Unnecessary, forced and ugly features are just not cool.
If the bezels are gone and the screen just covers the whole phone, where did the cameras and the sensors go, you might ask. And that would be a pretty good question! The answer is behind the screen. Screens are actually quite translucent without a backlight and with the pixels turned off, at least it is very possible to make such screens. Further, OLED technology allows the pixels to light themselves, negating the need to have a backlight at all. That's why OLED TV's can be so impossibly thin. In theory, when the pixels are turned off, the screen would be transparent.
Alternatively, and we see this a lot from Chinese brands like Oppo, the phones have various mechanical features that slide or pop up a selfie camera. THAT is very cool and I hope to see more innovation in this direction.
The reason we have notches and cutouts is presumably because consumer-level smartphone screens aren't see-through enough to allow a camera to take clean shots from behind it, or for the sensors to get accurate readings. OLED screens are still a feature of the more high-end phones, indicating that they are still a tad on the expensive side. If you don't go with OLED, you'd also need to have a transparent backlight, or cut a hole in it. There are many layers to a screen and all of them aren't yet available in transparent-enough flavors.
I'm quite certain that the dark ages of the notch will come to an end soon. Look at the Samsung Galaxy S10 image above; where do you think they put the sensors? The top bezel? Maybe. Or maybe they are behind the screen. Also, in-screen fingerprint readers have started to appear, suggesting that it is very possible to put an optical reader of some sort behind the screen (the new S10 uses an ultrasonic implementation). In light of these develpments, I predict that the notch will be all but extinct in a few years.
As I said: it's an almost-dead stepping stone. It's gone soon, and in the ashes the all-screen devices will rise. But is that even something that people want? Thin phones are fragile, and combined with the lack of bezels they can be quite hard to grip. I will admit that all-screen thin phones are very cool, and that's essentailly why this article is here on this site. But I also hope that companies start doing more market research than just looking at what Apple is doing. Or just go crazy like Nokia did.
What's your opinion of the notch? "At" @verycooltech on Twitter and tell me!