The OLED TV: Is Delusion Finally Transforming Into Reality?
One of my more memorable interactions from last week’s trip to S. Korea was with Brian Berkeley, Samsung Vice President from the company’s OLED Technology Center. Berkeley is, in the words of iSuppli’s Joe Abelson (VP for Displays Research, and also on the trip with me), something of a ‘rock star’ in the displays industry. Berkeley spent 20 years with Apple Computer, beginning as a display engineer on the original Macintosh. Per the SID bio:
He led hardware development on the first iMac computer, and ran Apple’s display and hardware I/O engineering. His display innovations include first use of in-line gun CRTs in a monitor application, putting color onto the Macintosh platform, development of the world’s first high volume LCD monitor, and responsibility for development of the industry’s first wide-format desktop and notebook LCD pdisplays.
And since 2003, he’s been an employee of Samsung, chartered with ramping the company’s OLED program. Today, Samsung ships nearly all of the world’s small-format OLEDs, used for example by Google’s Nexus One smartphone and its HTC-developed follow-ons, Microsoft’s Zune HD portable multimedia player, and a host of Samsung-branded devices (camera viewfinders, mobile phones, etc). But small-format OLEDs weren’t what Berkeley wanted to talk with us about last Wednesday afternoon. Instead, he wanted to sell us on the idea of large-format OLEDs for applications such as computer monitors, televisions and wall-sized panels.
“Good grief,” I admittedly thought when I realized what Berkeley’s presentation would focus on. After all, Sony had recently end-of-life’d its 11″ OLED TV (whose underwhelming market response, Berkeley admitted, was a perception setback for the entire OLED industry). And a key Samsung competitor, LG, was in very limited production on a 15″ OLED TV I’d first seen at the 2009 CES:
Meanwhile, 32″ and larger LCD TVs are flying off store shelves. And, thanks to innovations such as LED illumination (both in back- and edge-light configurations, and versus the CCFL predecessor), which Berkeley’s LCD counterparts at Samsung had just gotten done telling me about that morning, LCD TVs are thinner, less power-hungry and deliver higher quality images than ever before.
Berkeley’s pitch was heavy on hype and light on details. I stopped him partway through with the first of a series of challenges which led to a mutually respectful but blunt interchange between the two of us throughout the remainder of the hour. Basically, I hit the highlights of my controversial editorial from December of 2008:
- OLEDs for small-format (and usually battery-powered) applications have clear advantages over LCD counterparts; no backlight requirements, leading to both lower power consumption and thinner system implementations, plus their operating life limitations aren’t particularly problematic for regularly-replaced consumer electronics equipment. Anyway, LCD manufacturers would probably prefer to focus their not-unlimited manufacturing capacity on more profitable and glass-filling large-format displays.
- OLEDs are also ideal for new applications that, by virtue of the display technology’s lack of a rigid backlight, benefit by its inherent flexibility. OLED-inclusive clothing is one commonly cited implementation. Innumerable others also exist.
- But OLEDs are not ideal for LCD TV- or computer monitor-replacement purposes. Their limited operating life is incompatible with consumers’ expectations for such high-investment gear. Their backlight-less attributes are of little concern in these particular applications. And they’d be going up against a mature and substantial-sized LCD industry including but by no means controlled by Samsung, an industry that had already killed innumerable other display technologies, and one that was in the process of making obsolete plasma displays (including Samung’s own plasma products).
Berkeley flat out told me ‘you’re wrong,’ but he refused to provide data to refute my operating life, manufacturing cost or other concerns, citing company-proprietary information. In attempting to bolster his contention of my lack of vision by means of analogy, he told us a story of a meeting he and several others had at Steve Jobs’ house one Saturday in the fall of 1997, soon after the mercurial CEO returned to power at Apple. One topic of many that day was which display technology the company should mate with its upcoming desktop computers; Berkeley suggested then-embryonic LCD, but Jobs countered that it wasn’t yet ready and might never be; that Apple should stick with CRTs.
Berkeley didn’t say who won that particular argument. And I guess I should feel flattered to be compared to Steve Jobs. But as anyone who follows Apple’s product line knows, Berkeley was eventually proven right. He was quite pleased, in fact, when I told him that I was the proud owner of Apple’s 15″ Studio Display (ADC/LCD), Apple’s first LCD offering (developed with Samsung’s S. Korean competitor LG), which I’d recently acquired used on Ebay to mate with my G4 Cube. I didn’t get a chance to discuss with Berkeley the history of the company’s wonky digital video-plus-USB-plus-power ADC port. However, I gently suggested to Berkeley that his attempted analogy didn’t hold; that the transition from CRT to LCD was analogous to that from VHS tape to the DVD, whereas LCD to OLED is more like DVD to Blu-ray (and we all know how well that’s-not-going).
In further attempting to bolster his claims of OLED’s ascendance and ultimate triumph, Berkeley offered up two other suggestions:
- Check out DuPont’s upcoming announcements regarding OLED operating life and manufacturing ease, and
- Attend his boss’s (Dr. Sang-Soo Kim, Samsung Executive VP, Samsung Fellow and SID Fellow) keynote at the upcoming SID conference.
I’m leaving for SID on Sunday, so I’ll have to report back to you on that second bullet sometime next week. But with regard to Berkeley’s first suggestion, I’ll offer up the following link for your perusal, which went live shortly after my discussion with him:
- “DuPont announced that it has achieved record performance in printed organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays, sufficient to enable future adoption of OLED television (TV). Using proprietary DuPont Gen 3 solution OLED materials, DuPont has for the first time demonstrated a solution-based manufacturing process in which OLEDs can be cost effectively printed while delivering the necessary performance and lifetime.”
- “DuPont previously announced the development of solution-based OLED materials with record-setting lifetime performance. With the new results, DuPont has now translated its advances in materials science to a scalable manufacturing process where an OLED television operating eight hours per day would last over 15 years.1 To report these results, DuPont made printed test devices which can be operated at elevated luminance for an accelerated lifetime test. Printed devices using the DuPont process have reliably achieved lifetimes to 50 percent of initial luminance of 29,000 hours for red, 110,000 hours for green and 34,000 hours for blue at typical television brightness levels.2“
And the obligatory small-print ‘buts’:
- “1Assuming typical 30 percent duty cycle, running video.”
- “2Lifetime is T50 adjusted display lifetime (based on accelerated lifetime testing), at 100 percent duty cycle, at the individual sub-pixel luminances required for 200 nits front-of-screen brightness, at 40 percent aperture ratio, 46 percent transmission circular polarizer, white color (0.31, 0.33); the data are reported at 20 degrees C. The printed red device has a demonstrated current efficiency of 15 cd/A with color coordinates of (0.65, 0.35); green devices a current efficiency of 22 cd/A and color coordinates of (0.26, 0.64); and blue devices a current efficiency of 6 cd/A and color coordinates of (0.14, 0.14).”
I leave it to more displays-knowledgeable readers than myself to ascertain to what degree the above qualifiers transform the earlier operating life claims from meaningful information to meaningless marketing hype. Please share your feedback in the comments section following this post. But I’m at least mildly encouraged by the above news, coupled with the subsequent claims that DuPont can print a 50″ OLED panel in less than 2 minutes. This is the case even though Berkeley’s internal ‘competitors’ in the LCD division (such as Jaeyoung Han, Vice President of the Sales and Marketing Team) had, just a few hours prior to my meeting with him, dismissed OLED as having insufficient yields, cost structure and operating lifetime for TV applications, therefore only being suitable for small form factor systems.
In speaking with iSuppli’s Abelson after our meeting with Berkeley, Abelson suggested (and I concurred) that Samsung’s OLED push was all about cost. We’d just toured Samsung’s LCD panel manufacturing line, and Abelson had also seen the factory networks of Samsung’s partners (such as Corning’s glass lines) and competitors. As such, we were both intimately aware of the billions of dollars that these companies were yearly pouring into R&D and manufacturing, and the scant-to-nonexistent profits coming out sales end of the chain.
If OLED can meet (or better yet exceed) the consumer-perceived specifications of LCD TVs, and if it can drastically cut display manufacturing costs for Samsung and its competitors, then it’ll satisfy my oft-mentioned Drucker’s Rule, “An emerging technology must be 10× better than the incumbent approach in order to have a reasonable likelihood of replacing that incumbent.” As such, the displays industry will rapidly migrate away from LCD and to it. And Samsung, with its substantial existing R&D and production lead in small form factor OLEDs, will likely be in the driver’s seat. Beginning, it seems, with a 40″ OLED TV that’ll appear beginning later this year.
More after I talk OLED and LCD with more companies and analysts next week at SID. Until then, I welcome your thoughts.