A panel session at the recent Society for Information Displays (SID) conference in Boston posed the question "OLEDs Versus AMLCDs: Do OLEDs Have A Chance?" That simple question sparked a spirited debate between industry experts representing active matrix (AM) LCD manufacturers and organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display vendors. To the audience's amusement, serious arguments about display merits were tempered by some good- natured ribbing and self-effacing humor.
The LCD supporters, who were there to argue that OLED technology and manufacturing would not catch up with the LCDs', drew laughs at their own expense by assuming the role of the technology heavies. At least two panel members for LCDs jokingly referred to themselves as the bad guys. One even drew a cartoon caricature of himself as the devil (pitchfork and all!) with the words "Unbeatable LCD!" scrawled above his head.
For the most part, the OLED backers directed their jibes outward, noting that while LCD vendors pooh-pooh OLED potential, they've all started their own OLED development programs. In response, LCD advocates noted that their OLED R&D isn't necessarily being conducted on a large scale, and regardless of size, these programs offer no proof of OLEDs' ultimate success. After all, they pointed out, not so long ago field-emissive displays (FEDs) were being touted as the next big thing.
But when it came to citing precedent, both panel and audience members—many of whom sided with the OLED developers—were more inclined to mention the battle between LCDs and CRTs. As one member of the audience said, "Ten to 15 years ago, we were listening to very similar talks about CRTs," with the established monitor makers saying LCDs could never match their price and performance. With LCDs just now starting to emerge as the dominant monitor display, it seemed clear to everyone that you can't judge the future of an immature technology like OLEDs by measuring its current standing against the mature LCDs.
The OLED versus LCD debate boiled down to the real versus potential performance advantages and manufacturability of OLEDs. The OLED developers argued that they have the better looking displays: They're brighter. They have wider viewing angles, faster response times, greater temperature ranges, and full color to boot. Down the road, they claim that OLEDs will also draw less power and have lower costs than AMLCDs.
But the LCD supporters maintain that there are big obstacles to manufacturing OLEDs. For instance, how does one build a 17-in. OLED panel and keep the yields needed to keep costs low? Other technical roadblocks exist too, such as differential aging within and between colors. The higher cost of complex OLED drive circuitry is another concern. Meanwhile, LCDs continue to improve performance and lower cost.
Given time, OLED advocates believe that they'll solve the technical problems and begin to compete head-on with LCDs—not just in microdisplays where they're already beating out some LCDs, but also in small displays, and perhaps eventually in notebooks and larger-size displays. It took LCDs nearly three decades to catch CRTs, but OLED developers hope to cut that learning curve in half.
One question remains: What will be the must-have application that drives commercialization of OLEDs? Will it be cell phones, or something new? Unless that niche arrives, all the persuasive arguments in favor of OLED-style flat-panel displays will ultimately fall flat.