Winning the race but losing the battle in OLEDs

While surfing the Web recently in search of a new television set for my rather small den, I couldn’t help but notice that Radio Shack’s Web site had some 37 LCD televisions for sale but only one CRT model, a 5 in. B&W (yes, black and white) for a trifling $4.97.

Feb 1st, 2008
Th Jbairstow

By Jeff Bairstow

While surfing the Web recently in search of a new television set for my rather small den, I couldn’t help but notice that Radio Shack’s Web site had some 37 LCD televisions for sale but only one CRT model, a 5 in. B&W (yes, black and white) for a trifling $4.97. Yes, you read it right-the TV (with AM/FM radio included) was a mere five bucks! If you could find one-all my local Shacks were sold out.

Incidentally, in my town, a permit to dispose of a small TV or CRT monitor at the dump (excuse me, “transfer-station facility”) costs $10. On the same Radio Shack Web site, a 20 in. LCD television sells for less than $100. I don’t think that the town fathers have yet decided on a disposal permit for LCDs. But that time cannot be far away, and you can bet that the fee will certainly be more than $10.

According to the Japanese electronics giant Sony, 10 million LCD TVs will have been sold worldwide in the fiscal year ending this month. The LCD market is so hotly competitive that Sony lost over half a billion dollars on its TV operations in the first half of this fiscal year.

In almost the same breath, Sony announced that it was quitting the rapidly declining rear-projection TV business and would begin to sell an 11 in. OLED TV for a reported $1700 in Japan. The screen is a mere 3 mm thick (maybe I should say 3 mm thin?) and it consumes less electricity than a conventional incandescent 25 W electric light bulb.

While it may be too soon to say “sayonara” to LCDs, certainly the OLEDs are here to stay and are coming up pretty fast in the domestic TV and computer monitor markets. Should I wait to buy that little TV for my den? I don’t think so. Dropping a hundred bucks for a 20 in. LCD model is a no-brainer. You won’t beat that deal for quite a while, in my view.

The controversial and markedly challenging stock-market newsletter, The Motley Fool, boldly predicts that LCDs will be losing out to OLEDs in five years. For my taste, that’s a bit too optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on which side of the stock market or display-industry fences you are sitting).

My caution here is suggested because a goodly chunk of the intellectual property surrounding OLEDs and their allied electronics is in the hands of some big companies that are more noted for their R&D skills than their marketing smarts and manufacturing prowess. Companies such as General Electric, Eastman Kodak, and Xerox have long been active in optical organic-materials research but have been slower than molasses in either cranking up their manufacturing facilities or entering into licensing agreements with other, more aggressive electronics companies.

The OLED manufacturing pole position has clearly been grabbed by Korea’s Samsung SDI (Samsung Display Interface). At the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Samsung SDI announced that commercial manufacture of 14 in. OLED TVs and computer monitors would begin in the first half of next year. The Seoul company also demonstrated 31 and 40 in. panels at the same show. Yoo Eui-jin, vice president of Samsung SDI’s AM OLED Division, said, “We will develop 40 and 42 in. full high-definition AM OLED panels in 2010.”

The two big problems with OLEDs are the limited lifetimes of organic materials, particularly for blue OLEDs, and susceptibility to water damage. Significant strides are being made in solving both these problems. Cambridge Display Technologies (Cambourne, England) has developed blue OLEDs with lifetimes as long as 80,000 hours, well ahead of the typical standard of 60,000 hours for mass-produced LEDs. Water infiltration can be solved by superior component packaging, but many of the patents for appropriate technologies are held by U.S. and European electronics giants.

In my view, it’s not too late for a fleet-footed U.S. electronics maker to gain a foothold in the OLED business, maybe not in the cut-throat world of TV screens and computer monitors, but perhaps in narrower and more specialized markets such as outdoor billboards. How about it, GE? Check out the YouTube video clip made by GE researchers, GE Video on Demand: New Lighting Technology. Don’t let these opportunities slip away!

Click here to enlarge image

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
In-My-View@comcast.net

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