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Display efforts yield new prospects

Portable devices are getting closer to having longer battery life and slimmer designs because of improvements to the production of organic light-emitting diode displays.

Portable devices are getting closer to having longer battery life and slimmer designs because of improvements to the production of organic light-emitting diode displays from companies such as Philips Electronics.

Organic light-emitting diode (OLED) is looked upon as a promising display technology that if fully realized could consume less power and be thinner than liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which dominate the lucrative multibillion-dollar flat-panel monitor market. But analysts don't expect OLED to unseat LCD anytime soon because, as with all emerging technologies, it takes time to streamline production and boost yields for high efficiencies and volumes.

However, a new way of producing OLED displays could help push the technology toward the spotlight.

Philips Electronics developed the new production method with Cambridge Display Technology and has been using the process, which results in polymer-based OLED displays, since the middle of last year. On Tuesday Philips announced that it's the first polymer-based OLED maker to be shipping high-volume quantities, and said it has signed up a leading electronics maker to use the OLED displays in products that will be released later this year.

Philips did not return calls seeking details about the agreement.

The emerging process involves a less-precise method of production than the more widely used method. However, the emerging process results in higher yields, according to analyst Paul Semenza with display research firm Stanford Resources. To do so, the emerging production process uses groups of molecules, or polymers, at once, whereas the more widely used method requires a more precise procedure with individual molecules. The latter results in what manufacturers call "small-molecule-based" OLED displays.

"Polymers could enable a more rapid ramp up to high-volume production," Semenza said.

The downside though is that much of the production equipment that manufacturers are using for OLED displays favors the production of small-molecule-based displays, but the higher yields may be an attractive enough lure for more manufacturers to adopt the polymer method.

Still it will be some time before OLED takes over LCD technology in the display market.

"It's ludicrous to think that (OLED) will take over LCD in the short term," Semenza said, but even a piece of the overall pie for displays would be highly profitable.

Manufacturers are using OLED technologies in displays for devices with small screens, such as cell phones and pagers, but some, such as Sony, have been demonstrating the technology for use in large-sized devices, such as notebooks.

Stanford Resources estimates that the market for OLED displays will be $112 million for this year and $736 million by 2005. The firm predicts LCD displays will generate $27.7 billion in revenue this year and $43.3 billion by 2005.

Companies backing the polymer-based OLED technology include Dow Chemical, DuPont, Philips and Seiko Epson. A joint venture between Sanyo and Kodak, called SK Display; Pioneer; TDK; and another joint venture between Samsung and NEC, called Samsung NEC Mobile Display, are using OLED technology.