Sony pulls OLED television in Japan

Sony said on Tuesday that it would stop selling a groundbreaking television that uses organic light-emitting diodes in Japan after exhausting demand for the Y200,000 ($2,200) sets.

The 11-inch XEL-1 was the first OLED television to market in 2007 and Sir Howard Stringer, Sony’s chairman and chief executive, heralded it as evidence of Sony’s innovative capabilities.

“When you look at OLED, your impulse is to say ‘wow’. We need that reaction from people at Sony ... it’s a statement of confidence, that there is a path to somewhere else,” Sir Howard said in December 2007.

Stopping sales of the XEL-1 in Japan without launching a long-promised 27-inch successor suggests that OLED will not be the device to rescue Sony’s struggling television business.

OLED displays rely on a thin layer of chemicals that emit light when electricity passes through them. Unlike liquid crystal displays – the most common technology used – OLEDs do not need a separate light at the back so they are thinner and use less power. Sony’s XEL-1 is only 3mm thick.

A regulatory change means that Sony would have to redesign the XEL-1 in order to keep selling it in Japan after April, the company said, and at today’s prices the market is too small to make that worthwhile.

Sony said it would keep making the XEL-1 for sale outside of Japan and would press ahead with OLED development.

“Not only are we continuing development of mid- and large-sized OLED panels for TVs, but we also see potential for application of OLED in other devices,” the company said.

Sony has hit problems with mass production of OLEDs. It makes the screens by depositing a layer of chemicals on to a glass panel but it is struggling to control the thickness of that layer. The result is a high defect rate, a low yield from the production line and high costs.

There is also an industry-wide problem with making the screens bigger. Companies are working on a solution that involves spraying OLED chemicals on to the glass like an inkjet printer.

Almost every large television maker is working on OLEDs and Sony’s rivals in Korea and Taiwan are catching up. Last year, LG of Korea launched a 15-inch version of the television.

Executives at Idemitsu Kosan and Sumitomo Chemical, the two largest suppliers of materials for the screens, have told the Financial Times they do not expect OLED televisions to take off until 2012.

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