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Sony's Hope For Flat TVs Is In An 11-inch Set

Posted by: Kenji Hall on October 1, 2007

The future of Sony’s flat TV business is a set with a screen that measures just 11 inches diagonally and rotates on a swivel arm. In an era when the trend is for ever-bigger screens, Sony’s XEL-1 TV is an anomaly.

But as ludicrous as it sounds, the TV marks a huge technological coup for the Japanese electronics and entertainment giant: When the set goes on sale in Japan on Dec. 1, Sony will be the first company anywhere to commercialize an organic electroluminescent display TV. That’s a big deal for Sony, and not just because it took 14 years of research to reach this point. The company got such a late start in flat-screen TVs that it needed a tie-up with rival Samsung Electronics of Korea to even be competitive. “A few years ago, people were saying that we had the technology but lacked must-have products,” Ryoji Chubachi, Sony’s president, told reporters on Oct. 1. “OLED TVs are a symbol of the revival of a technology-focused Sony.”

Experts say organic electroluminescent displays could be the biggest innovation to reach the TV market in years. They’re a big step up from current flat-panel technologies because they can be made wafer thin. They also offer a picture that’s crisper and truer in color than either of the dominant technologies, liquid-crystal displays or plasma displays, and the screen response time is fast so images don’t blur during fast-action scenes. The high-definition images of flashing neon lights at night and the sea in bright sunlight that Sony showed on the XEL-1 were so clear it almost appeared as if you might be peering at them through a window. Sony’s hope is that it can eventually expand on its 5% share of overall TV shipments it had earlier this year. (Its share of LCD TVs is bigger, at 13%, according to iSuppli.)

But for now Sony’s new TV is for bragging rights more than profits. The company timed the announcement to fall on the eve of the annual CEATEC consumer-electronics and technology show in Chiba, just east of Tokyo.

Katsumi Ihara, executive deputy president, sidestepped questions about whether the TVs would be profitable. Other officials noted that one of the reasons for commercializing the technology now is to get feedback about the technology’s pros and cons in preparation for the next generation of OLEDs. In a note to investors in April, Goldman Sachs analyst Yuji Fujimori called the technology “promising” but said he expects “little near-term earnings impact.”

That doesn't take away from the significance of Sony's accomplishment. The XEL-1 display's side profile surpasses any other in thinness, at a mere 3 millimeters. That's partly because the set is so small. As the TVs approach the 40-inch to 50-inch range--if that's even possible--they would have to be made thicker to prevent warping or breakage, industry insiders say. Yoshito Shiraishi, who led the development of the XEL-1, dismissed concerns that a screen so thin might crack or perform poorly if handled roughly, saying it has a dual-layer panel inside that's rigid and chemically stable.

The secret to its slimness lies in the way the screen is made. Organic electroluminescent displays—-also known as organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs—-rely on a special polymer layer with "pixels" printed directly onto it. The layer itself emits light when an electrical current passes through. That means there's no need for a backlight, like LCDs, or a pocket of space for a chemical reaction, like plasma panels—factors preventing today's flat-screen TVs from being made even thinner. And since OLED pixels only consume energy when they're in use, they can consume up to 40% less energy than LCDs.

Sony plans to make 24,000 of the sets a year on a retooled line at an existing factory in Japan previously run in a 50-50 venture with Toyota Industries. It will be targeting well-heeled consumers in Japan—-the type who frequent first-class Japan Airlines lounges and Lexus car dealerships—-who want a small TV for the study or office. Officials declined to comment on plans for overseas sales.

Still, Sony's XEL-1 is hardly big enough to make a dent in the LCD and plasma market. Most of the world's key TV brands offer their high-end sets in the 30-inch to 60-inch sizes. Sony is nowhere near that. Since the beginning of the year, Sony has toured international trade shows with a 27-inch OLED set. But in May, Yasunori Kijima, an engineer and senior manager in Sony's display device group acknowledged to reporters the difficulties of mass producing big sets. He also said the 27-inch OLEDs rely on a different manufacturing process from the 11-inch sets. Recently, market research firm iSuppli's TV analyst Riddhi Patel devoted a mere five paragraphs of a 38-page global TV market report to the technology, and none of Patel's predictions through 2011 even mentioned OLEDs.

OLEDs mainly have been used in cell phones, car navigation systems and medical devices for years. Many have touted their potential as TV sets, but scaling up to bigger sizes has proven tricky. And despite Sony's accomplishment, it's unclear whether the company can produce a full-fledged lineup of OLED TVs efficiently and for a profit, says one executive at a rival Japanese TV maker that's researched OLED TVs.

OLEDs are attractive because they could be rolled out with inkjet or screen printing technology, unlike LCD and plasma panels screens which are cut from giant sheets of glass. Currently, only a few companies-—including Japan's Seiko Epson and Samsung Electronics of Korea--possess the know-how to make giant OLEDs. But no manufacturer has figured out how to make such panels last more than a couple of years, which is what makes them perfect for portable gizmos but not ideal for TVs. (The average TV is designed to last between seven and 10 years.)

Sony says its technology won't conk out prematurely and burn-in, in which faint images stay on the screen, isn't a problem. The prototypes they've tested should last at least 10 years if left on for eight hours daily. Expect many more improvements by the time average consumers can afford a Sony OLED TV.

Reader Comments

Birendra Kumar , eSys Technologies

October 2, 2007 7:37 AM

One dominant trend in consumer technology this year will be the evolution in TV viewing habits. A growing number of consumers are waiting to bring all sorts of video entertainment into homes. When I talk about video entertainment , it’s not mere entertainment thro CRT but a wider view leading to enhancement of consumer market segment looking for LCD / TFT and much more in same line – The PLASMA TV .
Yet no other war to lure customers will be fiercer than the one waged between two flat-panel technologies: plasma and liquid crystal display.
The race to offer larger screens has up to now been led by plasma. But the LCD camp has had a head start in making screens to the 1080p standard to show the crisp images of the next-generation high-definition DVDs.
Lately, in the plasma vs. LCD competition, the balance has tipped in favor of the LCD camp, which has been pouring billions into the effort to make larger panels at cheaper prices. Market researcher Display Search estimates LCD TV display revenues in 2006 at $22.5 billion, up 85%, against $7.2 billion for plasma TV displays, which gained 28%.
Industry execs believe that at the current pace LCD will displace plasma as the mainstream flat-panel technology in the 40-in. segment, for years the mainstay of plasma. "The big trend this year is the full HD standard and it has been proven that plasma technology is too expensive to make screens with that resolution,
consumers will be able to buy a 50-in. LCD TV next year at the price of a 40-in. set in 2006. This will make Plasma vendors to wind off the shop and / or ramp up the shop with LCD .
Less Price Challenge
Such pricing would be a tough challenge for plasma TVs. Yet there are signs things won't pan out in the same way in the 50-in. TV market. For the 40-in segment, LCD manufacturers in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan inundated the market with panels until supply exceeded demand by 60%.


October 2, 2007 8:15 PM

I was always under the impression that this technology was pretty old, but the profitability in developing the chemicals needed for the blue light in order to make it profitable was what kept it from being marketed?

It doesn't seem like Sony has found that sweet spot, has it? ...Or are they attempting to make people think Sony whenever they think OLED?


October 2, 2007 10:49 PM

To get the market share of high-end TV, no-matter theye are plasma, LCD, or OLED, you should hit the road earlier, then set the competitive price to earn the highest margin of profit, then cutting off when more rivals catch you up. Sony can choose the smaller size for OLED, because they know the bigger size won't work for the matter of profit and manufacturing issues. To focus on a group of customers to earn their name back as one innovative company which always put the new technology in their new products. The marketing strategy will work and influence other productlines.

Gary F

October 3, 2007 7:07 AM

Sony is for me the textbook example of how a company can quickly fall from grace. The Sony brand has become an outcast - dishonest, outdated & outmoded, unreliable, arrogant, proprietary, consumer unfriendly and whose marketing antics are dangerously short on morality & ethics.


October 5, 2007 12:10 PM

Congratulation to Sony and its piorneership in deploying commercial OLED TVs, which is a real tech leap forward! Let´s hope the production of OLED TV scale to become affordable to everybody.


October 6, 2007 10:09 AM

This prototype model has implications way beyond just televisions screens. There are applications for OLED tech across the whole spectrum of display technology. From laptop displays to billboard advertising - OLED will be there.

Personally I am looking forwards to this particular 11" display being applied to a laptop in the near future. It will be a breath of fresh air to have a laptop which does not have awful image quality.

Sony is keeping it's identity as an innovative and adaptive corporation, responding to even the most critical of consumer feedback. It has consistently developed it's unique and diverse product line-up to match up to (and exceed) the expectations of it's customers.


October 11, 2007 9:50 AM

I was wondering if Stuart works at Sony?...


October 16, 2007 12:49 AM

Great article! Toshiba will produce a 30-inch OLED-TV in 2009! Lets see who is the first in the 30-inch segment


December 1, 2007 1:18 PM

Toshiba = fail.

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