What’s Next for Display Technology in Smartphones?

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By David McQueen | 2Q 2018 | IN-5155

While Samsung has been used in OLED displays for years, Apple has remained the exception, until now. It appears that technology and features may finally trump cost efficiency, but meeting demand is another issue altogether, and flexibility may be a key factor.

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Apple Announces the Use of OLED Screens across Its Line-up from 2019


Despite Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) having been used extensively across many smartphone vendors’ portfolios, iPhone X is the first Apple phone to feature this technology. The latest stated intention of the company is to have an all-OLED iPhone lineup in 2019, which begs the questions: why now and why is Apple finally showing interest in it?

Apple's Approach to Technology Innovation Is the Same and OLED Is Not an Exception


The use of OLED displays in the smartphone market is not, by any means, a new phenomenon, as they were first introduced in 2008 and have been used since then in many flagship models from many of the world’s top vendors, most notably Samsung. The obvious exception to this trend has been Apple. Until the launch of its iPhone X last November, all of the company’s previous models, including the iPhone 8, have used Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) panels. While the announcement by Apple to move to an all-OLED iPhone lineup in 2019 has made the industry, and the supply chain in particular, sit up and listen, it begs the question why it has taken so long to embrace the technology and is it really able to complete this shift within the suggested timeline?

Before answering this question, it is worth noting that Apple has always lagged behind in terms of adopting technology innovation, especially when there was no evidence that innovation had any significant impact on device usability or an enhanced user experience. This pragmatic approach has been taken by Apple during a number of technology races, including those for increased multicore processors, higher speed access technologies, wider screen technologies, and many others.

Fundamentally, there are a number of key advantages when using OLED over LCD technology. OLED displays have a much higher contrast ratio than LCD and tend to be more energy efficient, meaning they are better suited to larger display sizes. In addition, LCD panels require an additional backlight component, which means OLEDs can be thinner, lighter, and more flexible. At a time when larger screens, minimal bezel designs, and edge-to-edge displays are becoming commonplace in smartphones, the use of OLED provides much needed flexibility. However, the use of OLED is still relatively expensive, so they are still mostly the preserve of high-end devices. For example, according to a recent ABI Research Teardown, the 5.8” OLED screen on the Samsung Galaxy S9 has an estimated Average Selling Price (ASP) of around US$50, whereas the 5.5” LCD panel for the Apple iPhone 8 Plus is around US$31. This added cost seems to be at odds with Apple’s strategy of launching a lower cost, larger screened iPhone later this year, which is sure to be based on a LCD panel.

As Apple does with any feature it adds to its iPhone line-up, the company has taken time to reflect on the OLED technology and finally decided to introduce it when it was believed to be ready. Apple’s reticence with OLED appears to stem from a technical trade-off, which includes a lower overall brightness level and underwhelming color accuracy, compared to what the company was able to achieve using LCD and its Retina Display.

A further issue of Apple’s stated intention is how it will be able to obtain enough OLED panels to meet demand. Assuming a launch in September 2019 across all iPhone models, Apple would need something approaching 100 million OLED panels just for that year alone. These sales would then be set to more than double in the following 2 to 3 years, despite some older LCD models still being made available in the market. Although the OLED manufacturing process has had many years in market, it still remains a challenge today and there are very few panel manufacturers, with Samsung Display and LG Display leading the way. This has the potential to create a bottleneck in the supply for Apple’s new iPhone range. Samsung Display is currently the number one manufacturer of OLED technology with an estimated 95% market share in smartphone displays, and is for the time being Apple’s sole provider.

Moving forward, Apple is always keen to use more than one supplier for components in its devices and so it can be assumed that this will be no exception for OLED panels. The most obvious choice is LG Display, but the company has shown nowhere near the ability to produce capacities close to that of Samsung. Furthermore, it has also had issues with the technology, as it provided the display for Google’s Pixel 2 XL, which received some hefty criticism. Despite this, Apple needs a second supplier, and if it is able to work closely with LG and take direct control of hardware quality, as it does currently with Samsung, then it will no doubt attain the required results to make it a suitable additional supplier.

Are the Days for Smartphone OLED Displays Numbered?      


It would seem that the drive to OLED displays in high-end smartphones is likely to continue for the next 2 years, but there is every possibility that these will be quickly usurped by other technologies, such as microLED and flexible displays. MicroLED is expected to be the next emerging flat panel display technology that can offer better contrast, response times, and energy efficiency than LCD. When set against OLED, microLED also offers higher total brightness and has a longer life cycle. MicroLED displays are not expected to appear in smartphones this year, although they may feature in TVs, notably from Samsung.

It is believed that Apple has begun in-house development of microLED screens of its own. Regardless of the announcement and timing of its all-OLED portfolio, it is clear that OLED may be viewed as just a temporary solution for Apple. The company is already planning for a shift to microLED screens across its product range, possibly starting in 2019 on the Apple Watch, and smartphones will undoubtedly follow once it can be reliably manufactured at scale and at a reasonable cost.

While the use of microLED can be seen as a straight replacement for OLED in high-end smartphones, the technology may find some product extension via its use in flexible and foldable displays. As the underlying technology for flexible displays, OLED is set to dominate next-generation flexible displays, offering “unquestionable advantages” over LCD and Electronic Paper Display (EPD). Among the major manufacturers developing flexible OLED-based displays are companies like LG Display, Samsung Display, and Royole, while others, such as Apple supplier Japan Display, are developing flexible LCD displays.

Smartphones carrying a flexible display are becoming closer to reality with a number of potential smartphone launches expected over the next 12 months. Both Samsung and LG are working on flexible smartphones with Samsung rumored to launch a folding “Galaxy X” in 2019. Rumors also suggest that Apple is expected to be later to market than its competitors (no surprise there as it awaits the technology to be perfected!) and will not launch until 2020 at the earliest. It has been suggested that Apple has partnered with LG to make a foldable OLED screen rather than Samsung, which would tie-in well with its need for a second OLED supplier, while also ensuring it can hide any sensitive flexible display technology from its main competitor. In addition, it has been mooted that Sharp aims to launch a premium smartphone model with a flexible OLED screen in 2018, while there are expectations that Motorola is set to utilize a flexible display in a reboot of its RAZR model smartphone, most likely due for launch sometime in 1Q 2019.

While ABI Research only expects about 2% of all smartphone shipments to have flexible displays in 2020, if the technology can find its way quickly into the mid-range, possibly through the RAZR, it will surely gain traction thereafter. However, this is working under the assumption that all implementations, form factors, pricing, and usability are still able to provide consumers with a high-end user experience that they have come to expect from the smartphone, flexible or otherwise.


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