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Apple Inc. Reportedly Pushing to Bring OLED to iPhone in 2017

By Ashraf Eassa - Mar 7, 2016 at 9:25AM

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In an apparent attempt to improve the iPhone's competitiveness, Apple is said to be looking to accelerate its transition to OLED displays by a year.

Apple's iPhone 6s phones have flat, not curved, displays. Image source: Apple. 

According to previous rumors, Apple (AAPL -5.64%) was originally planning to transition its popular iPhone family of smartphones from using traditional liquid crystal displays to more advanced displays using organic light-emitting diodes in the 2018 time frame. However, according to Nikkei (via MacRumors ), Apple is now planning to do this transition in the fall of 2017.

Why accelerate this transition?
These days, a good OLED display seems to be able to deliver better performance and efficiency than a good LCD -- at least according to display expert, Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate.

"OLED displays provide a number of significant advantages over LCDs including: being much thinner, much lighter, with a much smaller bezel providing a near rimless design, plus a very fast response time, better viewing angles, and an always-on display mode," Soneira wrote in his recent analysis of the Galaxy S7's OLED display.

However, I suspect that the real reason that Apple wants to transition to OLEDs is to be able to offer up iPhones with curved displays.

The crazy curved display argument
The idea of a curved display being a key driver of Apple's supply chain plans might seem patently ludicrous at first, but if you take a close look at Samsung's (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) last few Galaxy S flagship launches you'll notice something interesting.

Indeed, when the S6 and S6 Edge came out, Samsung was said to have dramatically underestimated the mix of curved-screen S6 Edge models that customers wanted to buy. Then, when pre-orders for the S7 and S7 Edge went online, at least one report suggested that 64% of combined S7/S7 Edge pre-orders were for the much more expensive S7 Edge model.

In other words, displays with curved edges -- something that OLED displays allow for -- appear to be something that customers are willing to pay a pretty penny for. Indeed, the price differential between an S7 (~$672) and the S7 Edge (~$792) is well north of $100 but I doubt that the bill of materials premium of the curved display panel over the regular one is anything close to $100.

Good news and bad news
The good news here is that once Apple transitions from flat LCDs to curved OLED displays, this should be an interesting enough change to potentially drive a reasonable upgrade cycle. In fact, it could very well be similar to the upgrade cycle that Apple saw when it finally moved from a small display on the iPhone 5s to larger ones on the iPhone 6/6 Plus and beyond.

The bad news, though, is that while customers waited for Apple to introduce large-screen displays, the company likely suffered from market segment share loss to companies that were able to offer large-screen displays.

I can't help but wonder if Apple might experience something similar during the coming iPhone product cycle as customers simply wait for Apple to deliver this feature or, in a less rosy scenario, defect to Android.

We'll see if Apple is able to pull it together
Ideally, Apple should have lined everything up so that it could transition at least some of its iPhones to OLED displays with the iPhone 7/7 Plus/Pro rather than wait until 2017 or even beyond if this rumor proves false.

However, as long as Apple can bring meaningful display improvements to the LCDs that will power the new iPhones this fall, and as long as Apple has some other "tricks" up its sleeve with the iPhone 7/7 Plus beyond just the display, Apple should still be in a good place.


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