This year, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is expected to introduce three new iPhones, the highest end of which should include a display based on organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, technology. The lower end models are expected to include liquid crystal displays (LCDs), though it's not clear what changes -- if any -- Apple plans to make with this year's LCDs compared to the ones found on the iPhone 7 series devices introduced last fall.
One of Apple's key LCD suppliers is a company called Japan Display, or JDI for short. Today, JDI enjoys significant Apple business, but Apple's transition to OLED displays (which seemingly caught JDI off guard, given that a year ago it was championing the long-term prospects of LCDs) could prove to be a challenge for the display maker.
Recall that Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) Display is said to be the sole supplier of the OLED displays that will be used on this year's premium iPhone, something that multiple reports attribute to the simple fact that only Samsung Display can build displays that meet Apple's demanding specifications.
Longer term, however, Apple is likely going to want to diversify its OLED display supply chain (for example, one report claims that it might co-invest in an OLED manufacturing plant with LG Display (NYSE:LPL)).
Obviously, Japan Display would like to be a part of Apple's long-term iDevice display plans (I don't see why it won't supply displays into the rumored iPhone 7s/7s Plus, though), so it's unsurprising that the company is now talking at length about its progress and ambitions vis-a-vis OLED displays.
Let's look at what the company had to say in its most recent investor presentation.
Flexible OLED manufacturing in the first half of 2018
In an investor presentation from May, Japan Display said that one of its key priorities is to "accelerate OLED development."
Japan Display went on to say that it had produced a "flexible OLED sample." The sample is a 5.5-inch full-HD (1920-by-1080-pixel resolution) display with peak brightness of over 700 nits (though Japan Display caveated that by saying that this peak brightness was at "10% area," suggesting that this peak brightness is only achieved when only a small portion of the display is on).
Japan Display also touted the extremely high contrast ratio of the display (this is a natural feature of OLED technology) and that the display can show ">110%" of the DCI-P3 color space (Apple's current iPhone and iPad models are advertised to cover 100% of the DCI-P3 color space).
In other words, Japan Display seems to have a reasonably flexible OLED display sample.
There's a long way to go from samples to mass production, though. It's easy to produce a sample of a technology, but there's a big difference between producing one sample -- one that's not even intended to be sold -- and producing millions upon millions of displays, all meeting Apple's exacting specifications.
Oh, and by the way, the displays produced for "mass production" need to be produced at a cost structure that's low enough so that the display maker can turn a reasonable profit.
With that in mind, Japan Display says that it aims to start mass production of OLED displays in the first half of its fiscal year 2018.
Is that in time for the next iPhone?
Japan Display won't mass-produce OLED displays in time for this year's iPhone (again, this year's OLED iPhone is said to use displays exclusively from Samsung), but will production start during the first half of its fiscal 2018 be early enough for the 2018 iPhone?
That's a much trickier question.
Japan Display's fiscal year 2016 ended on March 31, meaning that the first quarter of its fiscal year 2017 began on April 1, 2017. This suggests that -- at the earliest -- Japan Display could bring its OLED display technology into mass production around late March/early April of calendar 2018, which would be in time to support the 2018 iPhone launch.
However, while Japan Display seems to be on track to being able to supply OLED displays for the 2018 iPhone models (I suspect all new iPhones launched in 2018 will have OLED displays), things can go wrong, schedules slip, yield targets are sometimes not met, and so on.
While investors in Japan Display may have reason to believe that the company will be in the loop for next year's iPhone models, the company still needs to execute.