How to Best Use Flexible OLEDs?

This week’s issues are a little late – apologies for that, but we hope we’ve finally caught up after IFA and IBC.

This week we have quite a lot of stories in Mobile Display Monitor about the developments in flexible OLEDs. Samsung has done very well with its Edge product design, which has captured buyers’ imaginations in ways that LG didn’t when it introduced the G2 Flex phone. That phone used a flexible display and had good advantages in robustness, but buyers didn’t like the curve from top to bottom. They seem to like the curved edges of the Samsung S6 and S7 Edge.

There has been lots of talk of Apple adopting OLED and I wonder if Apple could afford to ignore the curved edge style that Samsung has tried? On the one hand, staying with a simple flat ‘slab’ design may look a bit old fashioned, but if Apple adopts something similar to the Edge, Apple will look a bit ‘me too’, which the company won’t want.

Currently, LG only has a very limited capacity for flexible OLEDs and won’t have much more for another year or two. That would suggest Samsung as the main or only realistic supplier with track record of shipping big volumes of flexible OLEDs, which again won’t be an attractive prospect for Apple.

Over a couple of years, I was very impressed with the private demos that I have seen of ‘trifold tablets’, ‘roll-up displays’ and ‘flip phablets’ that really exploit the flexibility of OLED technology. It seemed to me that these concepts could really re-ignite demand in the mobile space and lead to some new applications. However, as I understand it, the real issue is that if you make the OLED truly flexible, it is currently not possible to protect the display from accidental (or deliberate) abuse by the user. Although Corning and Asahi have shown very, very thin glass that is also flexible, that doesn’t seem realistic as a protection method from what we have seen at the moment.

On the other hand, as I have been saying since I heard the expression from David Fyfe (then of CDT) at our DisplayForum 2003 (and I can’t find a source for it before that), “Don’t bet against the engineers”. I have no doubt that there are teams all over the world trying to work out how to make those beautiful flexible OLEDs robust enough to survive the attentions of users without completely giving up the advantages of flexibility after manufacture. This won’t be easy, but perhaps somebody has a new material (possibly based on graphene or something similar) that can protect the material?

The question then is whether somebody can design something really compelling using that technology? Could Apple do something dramatic? In the past, I have said that it seemed to me that one of the key strengths that Apple had (and Steve Jobs was reckoned to be personally very good at this), was the ability to take a development on the roadmap of a supplier and turn that into a compelling feature or even a key new category, where others didn’t see the possibilities.

Apple’s Steve Cook is widely regarded as being a very strong supply chain expert. The question remains, though, of whether Apple will be able to make the kind of creative and innovative leaps that characterised the reign of Steve Jobs. To be fair, it’s also a genuine question as to whether it really needs to?