Flexible OLED display technology is poised to dominate the next generation smartphone market with thinner, lighter, bezel less, immersive screens and differentiating form factors.
AMOLED technology will enable the display to provide faster response time, deeper black, higher contrast, better viewing angle and lower power consumption. Apple’s use of Flexible AMOLED displays in its iPhone X product has promoted this shift in the industry. However, the global smartphone market growth rate has slowed down in recent years. Can flexible OLED displays be the savior for the smartphone market by bringing in higher performance and differentiated form factors?
iPhone X Impact- rush for flexible display
Apple introduced iPhone X model in Q4 2017, with a 5.8" full screen Super Retina flexible OLED display (2436 x 1125 pixel resolution at 458ppi). It received rave reviews in the industry for superior display performance. Apple’s adoption of flexible OLED display created a major impact in the smartphone market even before the official introduction.
Samsung has been using flexible OLED display for its Galaxy series of phones. But more Chinese brands started to adopt OLED display for their smartphone models and they were influenced by Apple. The AMOLED mobile display market was expected to enter its most expansive growth phase in 2017 and beyond due to the adoption Flexible OLED display in Apple’s iPhone X. But high price ($999) and supply issues resulted in fewer than expected sales of iPhone X in 2017.
According to IDC’s preliminary result press release, Apple’s Q4 2017 iPhone shipments saw 1.3% year over year decline and, rather than growing. worldwide smartphone market shipments in 2017 declined, by less than 1%, compared to 2016. Consumers were not in a rush to upgrade to newer generation, higher priced flagship models. The growth rate of smartphone unit shipments has declined considerably in recent years, from double-digit growth in 2015, to low single digit growth in 2016 and now to a decline in 2017. The mature markets of North America and China have seen demand slow down. As a result, the only smartphone market shipment growth is coming from emerging markets such as India and the rest of the world.
Flexible OLED can help high end products but not the low end
Apple obtained flexible OLED panels from Samsung Display, as it was the only company in the industry in 2017 with production volume and technology expertise that Apple required. Samsung will continue to be the dominant supplier for flexible OLED display, even in 2018.
Even though other suppliers such as LG display and others planning to ramp up production, it will take time. Smartphone brand manufacturers want to adopt flexible OLED to differentiate their products and in the hope of driving strong demand. New differentiated products can help replacement demand at the high end. But due to the higher costs, most of the new products will be at high end, far from the affordable products needed for the emerging markets.
As I wrote in my Display Daily article almost one year back (Can the Magic of OLED Displays Bring Strong Growth to Smartphones?),
“shining moments of OLED in 2017 will bring excitement and high demand, but tight supply and higher cost will prevent it from offering low end products for the emerging market to drive strong unit shipments growth for the smartphone market this year”.
Foldable smartphones in the near future
Many suppliers will be showcasing next generation smartphone models at Mobile World Congress this month. The industry is anxiously waiting for Samsung’s Galaxy S9 product. Samsung has been in the forefront of smartphone developments with its rigid and flexible OLED display-based products. Samsung is also expected to introduce its first foldable smartphones in the market in the near future.
Besides Samsung, many other companies are working on foldable phone prototypes. Foldable products can be unidirectional, bi-directional; and can have single fold or multiple folds providing design flexibility. A big advantage of a foldable display is the ability to have “thin light unbreakable larger displays in a smaller form factor”. While the display curvature radius of current generation flexible displays may be 8mm, foldable display curvature will need to be 1 - 3mm and needs to provide the ability to bend multiple times without degradation.
However, many display industry people believe foldable phones can only be ready for high volume production in 2019 or later, as the technology needs more time to mature. There are many challenges including process technology, materials, manufacturing issues, high capex, higher costs, high price for consumer device, durability of the products, design acceptance by consumers, and consumer willingness to pay higher prices for the new designs.
OLED is in the forefront for flexible and foldable
OLED display technology is in the forefront for flexible and foldable display. Combined with printable OLED manufacturing capabilities- it has the potential to enable lower-cost flexible, foldable, and stretchable display in future. Flexible OLED is expected to gain market share in the smartphone market due to its innovative design differentiation.
Even though the potential future of next generation flexible and foldable displays is very promising, the technology needs more time to develop for reality to meet expectations. Higher performance and differentiated form factor will not be enough, it has to be combined with higher production volume and lower costs before it can be the savior for the next gen smartphone market. In the short run, the industry has to depend on lower cost LTPS LCD and even a-Si LCD to meet lower price smartphone demand from the emerging market to drive growth. - Sweta Dash
Sweta Dash is the founding president of Dash-Insights, a market research and consulting company specializing in the display industry. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.dash-insight.com