Future looking bright for OLED displays

After a long wait, OLED screens could face a bright future as the display technology of choice for many kinds of gadgets and mobile electronics.

The growing number of electronics devices using OLED (organic light emitting diode) displays shows that, after years of promise, the technology is finding a home in more and more products. But while OLED displays might challenge LCDs (liquid crystal displays) as the screens of choice for smaller gadgets, don't expect the technology to become mainstream for notebook PCs or TVs within this decade.

OLED displays use organic compounds that emit light when exposed to an electric current. They are brighter, have better contrast, offer wider viewing angles, use less power, and provide faster response times than LCDs. OLED screens can also be one-third thinner than LCDs, since they don't need a backlight, and that makes them a good fit for portable electronics devices.

With such advantages, OLED displays are beginning to appear in premium products; two Sony Corp. Network Walkmans use OLEDs and both Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics have released mobile phones with OLED main displays.

"The thinness, the depth of colors, the brightness, these are features that any company would want," said David Yang, a spokesman for Sony.

About 31 million [M] OLED panels were shipped last year, double that of 2003, according to market research firm DisplaySearch. And U.S. market research company iSuppi has counted over 50 OLED-equipped MP3 player models in the market as of March this year.

"OLEDs are visually appealing, which is important in a product that is mostly a fashion statement for young people. I was shocked at how many models are out there," said Kimberly Allen, an iSuppli analyst.

The growing adoption of OLED displays has proven that the technology is viable, despite pricing concerns.

"Some people were concerned about whether or not OLED could become a significant industry -- but I think we've proven it can," said D.C. Wang, chief executive officer of Taiwan's RiTdisplay.

RiTdisplay was the world's number two OLED panel maker in terms of shipments in 2004, with a 25 percent share, according to iSuppli. Samsung SDI led the market last year with a 44 percent share, and Pioneer of Japan was third with 20 percent, according to the research company's estimates.

Several years ago, some makers predicted OLED panels might replace LCDs as the display of choice for portable gadgets. Sanyo Electric, for example, was expected to release its first OLED-based handsets in 2003. It showed prototypes last year.

But products failed to appear. That's because OLED screens still cost about 1.5 times the price of the same-size LCD screens, and this proved too expensive for the company to use in mobile phones, it said.

OLED's price premium also rules out the technology's use in larger applications such as notebook PCs, according to Taiwan's BenQ, a major PC vendor.

"For panels, affordability trumps power savings, and LCD technology is the lowest cost right now," said Richard Hsu, a director at BenQ.

While display lifetimes are lengthening as makers improve the technology, many OLED displays only last about 5,000 hours, about half of that demanded for TVs by makers.

For small gadgets and mobile phones however, OLEDs last long enough and many OLED makers and industry analysts are optimistic about the technology's future in such applications.

OLED display shipments will double to about 60 million units in 2005 and then nearly triple to over 170 million units in 2008 as OLEDs take even more market share for MP3 players and, for example, become more common as main displays in mobile phones, according to iSuppli.

As volumes increase, prices will fall, helping OLED's competitiveness against LCD in a wider range of small displays, according to RiTdisplay's Wang. And that's good news for his company, he said.

"We will continue to expand. Big is beautiful in this industry, and we have to remain competitive," he said.

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