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May 1, 2007 11:08 pm

Flat screen displays an organic evolution

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For the average consumer, the minute differences between flat-screen liquid crystal display (LCD) televisions and plasma display TVs are near-impossible to detect with the naked eye.

But the next generation of flat-screen TVs are a breed apart. The clean, crisp images on Sony’s 11in, 3mm thick organic light-emitting diode (Oled) TV are so arresting that the line between TV and reality becomes blurred. One journalist peering at a screen muttered that it was akin to looking out of a window.

Last year, flat-panel TV prices fell by 25 per cent and this year similar – if not greater – price declines are expected. Against this backdrop, Japanese consumer electronics makers are scrambling to gain a foothold in the next generation of flat-screen technology.

Sony is set to begin selling 11in Oled TVs by the end of the year, while Canon is aiming to sell its 55in surface-conduction electron-emitter display (SED) TVs within roughly the same time. Toshiba, Sony’s main rival, wants to launch a 21in Oled TV by 2009 along with Matsushita, its joint venture partner.

Oled technology, which is not exclusive to Sony, uses the ability of some organic chemicals to emit their own light when an electric current is applied. Oled screens require no backlight, so they can be as thin as 3mm and produce better quality pictures at a lower energy cost.

“It will take a couple of years until we make a profit with Oled . . . there are a lot of issues to overcome,” says Katsumi Ihara, Sony’s executive deputy president.

“We need to find a mass-production manufacturing process for the larger screen size. The current process requires too much money.”

SED panels, meanwhile, provide very clear colour and do not require a back-light, reducing electricity usage and materials costs. Canon, however, is em­broiled in a legal dispute in the US with a company called Nano-Proprietary over SED patents – a move that could delay the entry of its product into the crucial American market.

Analysts expect it will take at least another five years before next-generation TVs become commercially viable. The technology is still immature, and the biggest hurdle is the ability to mass produce larger panels.

“After 2010, Oled is a promising technology,” says Koya Tabata, a consumer electronics analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo.

“Sony has been working on it for almost a decade. The problem with [Canon’s] SED technology is that it is only to be used in TVs, whereas Oled can be used in separate applications, such as mobile phone displays,” he says.

Elsewhere in Asia, industry executives are shunning the next generation of TV technology. In Taiwan, which surpassed South Korea last year as the world’s largest production base for LCD panels, executives do not expect Oled to evolve as the future mainstream technology for flat-screen TVs.

“It will be very difficult for this technology to survive,” says Lee Kuen-yao, chairman of AU Optronics, the world’s third largest LCD panel maker.

“Sony has never bet on the right horse in display technology. Why should they be right this time?”

Henry Wang, head of industry researcher WitsView, says that Korean and Taiwanese panel-makers will have to brace themselves if there are real breakthroughs in Oled in Japan.

“The Taiwanese found that ramping Oled faces immense challenges,” he says.

“And in spite of Sony’s recent noises, that still seems to be the case – even Sony can do no more than 1,000 panels a month.”

In South Korea, Samsung’s affiliate, Samsung SDI, has been more aggressive in entering the Oled market. The company has earmarked Won466.5bn ($501m) as a first-stage investment in Oled panels between 2006 and 2007. It aims to produce 20m active matrix Oled panels this year and wants to increase output to 50m panels in 2008 to capture
the high-end mobile phone market.

The company plans to mass produce small-size AM Oled panels in the third quarter. It has developed 2in and 4in AM Oled panels for mobile TVs and is currently testing the technology.

But even Sony executives admit that the battle over bigger LCD and PDP TVs will continue in the foreseeable future, in spite of the emergence of nascent technologies such as Oled and SED.

“I do not think that LCD will last until the next century, but I also do not think that LCD will disappear next year,” says Ryoji Chubachi, Sony’s president.

“It will remain the mainstay of televisions.”

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