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Apple's MacBook screen supplier wants a piece of the OLED iPhone business

BOE flexible display technology

Last updated

Apple's MacBook and iPad screen vendor is looking to challenge Samsung's and LG's OLED stranglehold for the iPhone, giving Apple yet another supplier to leverage in price negotiations.

BOE Technology has supplied displays for Apple since 2015, and is the worlds largest producer of laptop LCD displays. According to sources familiar with the matter, the company seeks a toehold in the OLED supply for the iPhone, Apple Watch, and anything else the company is considering using the technology.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the earliest that the company could supply panels is 2020. It is already manufacturing some with a yield of about 70 percent, and supplying displays for the Mate RS smartphone.

That 70 percent is the low-end of efficiency required to be able to make money on the screen production. However, it is unclear if the company can maintain that if it ramps up to the volumes that Apple would need for the iPhone.

BOE is the only Chinese company that provides screens to Apple. It is also controlled by the Beijing city government, with its largest shareholders state-held companies.

The 2020 date may be too late. Apple has been rumored to be examining other technologies including quantum dot and micro LED.

Complicated construction

Success in LCD manufacturing is no guarantee of being able to crank out OLED screens.

A traditional LCD screen is considered transmissive — individual elements change color, but are at the mercy of assorted backlight technologies for presentation. OLED screens are emissive, meaning that each individual pixel is its own light source with brightness being able to be set per pixel.

As a result, OLED technology also has significant power efficiency improvements over LCD screens. For instance, a black pixel consumes no power— this also opens up other utilizations of an OLED screen, such as only using a small portion of it for a constant time and notification display, with minimal impact to battery life.

Without the need for a backlight, an OLED screen can be thinner than competing technologies, all other factors equal. OLED response times can theoretically reach 0.01 milliseconds, versus 1 millisecond for modern LCD screens.

Production is more complicated than LCD, with even a speck of dust completely ruining a screen during initial fabrication. The cost to construct each screen still exceeds that of an LCD.

Water impingement is a major problem for OLED screens both during production, and in-use. Even a small amount of water contacting the organic substrate of the screen can immediately damage the display, necessitating replacement.

Partly because of these factors, LG has been slow to transition its manufacturing lines over to the new technology. As a result, rumors about LG getting involved in OLED screen production for Apple's iPhone have taken a long time to develop.