OLED's future is bright for small screens

Toshiba will begin volume production of two or more sizes of small OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens next year, officials from the company said in interviews at Ceatec Japan 2004 this week.

Customers for the panels could include a wide range of companies as well as Toshiba and Matsushita Electric Industrial, TMD's major shareholders. This means OLED technology is finally primed to begin replacing LCDs (liquid crystal displays) in small screens and that consumers will be able to enjoy better pictures on their multimedia and DVD players and viewers on their digital video cameras, said Michio Nogawa, a specialist at TMD's marketing and engineering department in an interview on Thursday.

"OLED's technology advantage is that it's very bright, has a higher contrast than LCD, and is good for moving pictures," he said.

Because OLEDs do not require backlights, the screens are typically 15 percent to 20 percent thinner than equivalent sized LCDs, he said.

TMD will begin producing 3.5-inch QVGA (320 pixel by 240 pixel) OLED screens before the end of September 2005, and screens just over two inches in size before the end of March 2006. In addition the company is looking to produce screens in the 10-inch size range in 2007 or 2008, he said.

The company is not disclosing the number of 3.5-inch screens it plans to make, and it has yet to finalize exactly what size the 2-inch range screens will be. But TMD sees a market emerging for the 3.5-inch screens for portable multimedia players, for example, Nogawa said. A first application for the 2-inch class could well be viewers for digital still and video cameras, and, perhaps later, screens for mobile phones, he said.

TMD is a joint venture by Toshiba and Matsushita that was set up in April 2002 after the companies decided to merge their LCD operations. Because of this, both companies are likely customers, he said.

"We are just a panel maker, so we are not officially saying who our customers are, but you can guess them, and Matsushita is our shareholder," said Nogawa.

Toshiba is interested in using the 3.5-inch screen in future multimedia players, TMD's Kenji Nakagawa, a specialist at the company's marketing and engineering department, said in an interview earlier this week. Toshiba is exhibiting a player equipped with a satellite tuner that it is producing for Mobile Broadcasting's satellite broadcasting service that starts operation Oct. 20.

Toshiba is considering developing multimedia players that have terrestrial digital tuners and/or satellite tuners, and such players will benefit from using OLED screens, Nakagawa said.

OLED has long been seen as a potential replacement technology for LCDs for small screens and several major Japanese companies, including Seiko Epson and Sanyo Electric have expressed interest in the technology. Seiko Epson plans to use OLEDs in 40-inch TVs, and the company has already made prototypes, according to the company earlier this year.

In September, Sony announced that it will start production of 3.8-inch OLEDs in 2005 for its new Clie© PEG-VZ90 PDA (personal digital assistant). Beyond this, the company is considering using small OLED screens for digital still cameras, digital video cameras and small thin clients from 2005.

The recent announcements show that OLEDs are ready to start replacing LCDs in more and more applications, according to Kimberly Allen, director of technology and strategic research at U.S.-based market research company iSuppli.

"Oh, this is the real deal. Once a few players get in, they will all have to," she wrote in an Oct. 8 e-mail interview.

"All the major Japanese players are likely to use OLED for small screens ... and once one jumps, they all will. But don't only pay attention to Japan," she wrote.

As well as Sony and its ST Liquid Display joint venture with Toyota, ELDis, a joint venture formed by a Tohoku Pioneer and Sharp is planning OLED production for its parents Pioneer and Sharp. Also, Casio Computer, Samsung Electronics, Samsung SDI, and LG Electronics are all interested in volume production of OLED screens sooner rather than later, she wrote.

Allen warned that recent announcements do not mean OLED screens will become mainstream in all portable products in 2006 or 2007. This is partly because any of the first applications, such as PDAs and multimedia players are made in relatively small numbers compared to cellular phones, for example, and also because companies have invested billions of dollars in LCD technology

"Obviously they aren't going to gut a cash cow for something risky and expensive like OLED. So they'll introduce it slowly and strategically, making sure they still get maximum revenue from their LCD business," she wrote.

The global OLED market is due to grow from US$429 million in 2004 to $3.3 billion in 2010, according to iSuppli's latest forecast.

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Paul Kallender

IDG News Service
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