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OLEDs - ready or not?

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on June 7, 2006

Tired of the display on your cell phone fading into oblivion when you’re standing in the sun? Maybe you want a handset with an organic light emitting diod (OLED). For years, people have been talking about OLEDs as the Next Big Thing for the display industry, since the technology promises brighter pictures that don’t do a disappearing act in the sunshine. Computex, the biggest electronics show in Asia, is taking place this week in Taiwan, and there’s at least one sign that OLED’s time is coming. Attending the show yesterday in Taipei, I saw a new OLED phone from BenQ. The display was amazing – color much richer and sharper than an LCD.

But Ray Chen, president of Compal Electronics, Taiwan’s No. 2 maker of notebook PCs and a leading producer of cell phones as well, isn’t buying it. Chen has been staying clear of Computex. Not only is he not at the show, he’s not even in the country. Pure ODMs like Compal design and manufacture for others (Dell, HP, etc) and don’t have brands of their own. Rather than steal the thunder from their customers, such ODMs try to keep a lower profile. So Chen’s been in San Francisco, attending a conference organized by the Society for Information Display. Compal is the leading investor in Toppoly, an LCD manufacturer that has just merged with a subsidiary of Philips to form TPO Display. The merged company, based just outside of Hsinchu in Taiwan, is the world’s second-largest producer of small-size displays used in cell phones, digital cameras and MP3 players. (Samsung SDI is No. 1.) TPO specializes in a different type of LCD technology called LTPS, which stands for low-temperature poly silicon. Unlike traditional TFT-LCDs, LTPS displays don’t need a separate chip (called a driver IC in the industry) to make the LCD panel work. Here’s Chen’s description of it: “The lovely thing about LTPS is we are able integrate the system solution into the panel. We don’t need to take the outside silicon; we can build on the glass.” Chen says that eliminating the driver IC can save as much as $4 per screen. He boasts that LTPS leads to faster speeds and higher resolution images, too. “It’s faster, it’s brighter, it’s sharper,” he says.

Chen, not surprisingly, is dismissive about OLED’s chances in the next few years, citing technical barriers regarding display quality, life cycle and cost. “There’s been a lot of talk,” he says. But, adds Chen, “we think three to four years at least” before OLED becomes mainstream.

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Bloomberg Businessweek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies.

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