New Kyocera company shows industry’s OLED intent

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April 5, 2004 — As the world goes mobile and cellular phone manufacturers jockey to get their gizmos in your pocket, a nanotechnology-based innovation is going along for the ride.

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OLEDs, or organic light emitting diodes, are poised to make cell phone displays brighter, faster and perhaps one day even cheaper than current technology — enough so that Kyocera Corp., a Japanese electronics firm, launched a new subsidiary for OLED R&D, manufacturing and sales activities.

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The new company, Kyocera Display Institute Co. Ltd., is slated to have 32 employees and is aiming to enter the OLED market in 2005 with OLED displays for phones, cameras and other consumer electronics devices.

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“It’s very significant,” said Kimberly Allen, director of technology and strategic resources for iSuppli/Stanford Resources, an El Segundo, Calif.-based research and analysis firm. “It’s the middle-sized companies (like Kyocera) that are … the key to getting active matrix OLEDs into the market.”

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Active matrix OLEDs offer high-end color viewing. Passive matrix screens are like the older monochromatic liquid crystal displays on low-end mobile phones and first-generation laptops.

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Allen said that while some larger electronics firms are struggling, the midsize firms are doing relatively well. Kyocera’s new venture also has the advantage of a built-in customer: In early 2000, Kyocera bought Qualcomm’s mobile phone business, which is now Kyocera Wireless Corp.

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OLEDs are already in the cellular phone market, though in their less robust form. Subdisplays — the miniature readouts on the outside of flip-style phones — are the initial application for passive matrix OLEDs in phones. Pioneer of Japan, Samsung NEC Mobile Display of Korea and RiTdisplay of Taiwan supply panels that Fujitsu, LG, Samsung and Motorola are using in phones either on or coming to market. The subdisplay, Allen says, is a place where consumers have lower quality expectations.

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However, those low expectations won’t last long. Passive matrix OLEDs work in places where entrenched technologies like LCD are used, but OLED can’t compete with LCD on price. Therefore, Allen says, the ultimate market for OLED is in higher quality, and higher margin, products such as the full-color active matrix displays inside phones, handheld computers and digital cameras.

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So far, it’s a wide open playing field. As far as Allen is aware, Kodak’s LS633 digital camera is the only consumer electronics product on the market with an active matrix OLED.

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The worldwide OLED market in 2003 was worth $250 million, according to Allen, who said $195 million of it, or 78 percent, was in cellular phones. And as the market grows, to $1.7 billion in 2007 by her forecasts, she expects mobile phones’ share to grow too.

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As for applications beyond consumer electronics, the technology faces some development hurdles. OLEDs degrade over time, making cell phones the ideal application for the present time, since consumers replace them frequently.

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Phone manufacturers are even working on innovative designs that would sandwich two displays — one on the outside and the other on the inside — around a single set of electronics within a flip-style phone’s cover. The technique would save power and money. Consumers would be likely to toss the phone long before the displays wore out.

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On the other hand, Allen said, “The display on your oven would not be a good idea.”

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