Tuesday, August 18, 2009

OLED technology emerges big in new smartphone

It consumes little power, gives superior picture quality and was touted as the future of all displays, but organic screen
technology has been languishing in manufacturers' backrooms until now.

Active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AM-OLED) displays are making a belated appearance in pricier smartphones as makers latch on to the technology to get an edge in a sector where competition is fierce and features matter more than price.

Samsung Electronics, the world's No.2 mobile phone maker and a main proponent of the technology, has eight models featuring organic screens and plans to roll out about 10 more by the year-end.

In the United States, its Impression model is sold via AT&T, and Sprint Nextel will also offer at least one Samsung phone using AM-OLED technology.

Global cellphone leader Nokia is offering AM-OLED in its N85 and N86 high-end models as it fends off smartphone rivals such as Research In Motion and Apple.

Fans of the technology say that while AM-OLED mobile phone screens are 50-80 percent more expensive than conventional LCD screens and their high price has kept them from mass-production, their time may have come.

"I think the economics of it are somewhat irrelevant," said Ben Wood, an analyst at wireless research firm CCS Insight. "It's a real differentiator. I predict you'll see AM-OLED devices from all the major manufacturers within 12 months from now."

But AM-OLED technology failed to catch on for a reason. The screens are more expensive to produce, and supply is restricted to a few manufacturers, primarily Samsung Mobile Display, which has 97 percent share of the market.

"I've no doubt about (AM-OLED) growth over the long term. But whether all players would immediately follow the trend set by Samsung, I'm not sure," said Oh In-bum, an analyst at Dongbu Securities.

The appeal of AM-OLED technology lies in the thin layer of organic materials that allow screens to glow on their own, unlike liquid crystal display (LCD) panels, resulting in slimmer screens that use less power, boast faster response speed and have more vivid colours.

Samsung is the main proponent of a wider adoption of the technology, and forecasts 37.5 percent of all mobile phones sold in 2015 will have AM-OLED screens, up from 2.3 percent in 2009.

Samsung Mobile Display aims to sell 23 million units of AM-OLED displays this year, up from 7 million in 2008. Jeff Kim, an analyst at Hyundai Securities, expects Samsung's sales to reach 49 million next year.


Analysts are hopeful that AM-OLED prices will come down as output increases, lifting the biggest hurdle for wider adoption.

"Technologies have been advancing at a faster-than-expected rate and even in the downturn, consumers are keen to buy high-end products," said Hyundai Securities' Kim.

He expects the premium for a 2.8-inch AM-OLED display (used largely in handsets) over the same-size LCD screen to narrow to 10-20 percent within two years from 50 percent now. Displays typically make up 10-20 percent of a phone's manufacturing cost.

But some analysts have lower expectations as many manufacturers remain comfortable with mass-produced LCD screens. Vinita Jakhanwal, analyst at iSuppli, expects AM-OLED phones to account for only about 10 percent of all phones sold in 2013.

"This still means LCD has the bulk of the market," Jakhanwal said. "LCD screens are evolving too and they're improving their performance." LG Electronics, Samsung's home rival and the third-ranked handset maker, went for a premium LCD display on its 'New Chocolate' touchscreen phone.

Its screen-making affiliate LG Display is also building a new production line for more technologically advanced LCD screens for mobiles.

And for the AM-OLED business to grow in scale and turn profitable, the technology needs more manufacturers. Apart from Samsung, the only other two manufacturers are LG Display and a unit of Taiwan's Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp.

Industry specialists also note that while organic displays for handsets appear ready to take off, the sheer cost of using the technology on larger PC and TV screens is still prohibitive. Japan's Sony Corp launched the world's first OLED TV in late 2007, but has not followed with new models.


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