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Secrets to Apple success: Displays

One reason for Apple's success is its knack for driving technology standards. So much so that tech adopted by Apple often becomes a must-have on products from other device suppliers.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
Apple has been a factor in popularizing IPS screen technology, which has a wide, 178-degree viewing angle. IPS was not much known until Apple began promoting it.
Apple has been a factor in popularizing IPS screen technology, which has a wide, 178-degree viewing angle. IPS was not much known until Apple began promoting it. Apple

While it's common knowledge that Apple is a product trendsetter via the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air, its status as a standard setter is not as widely known.

Ever heard of Thunderbolt? If you have (many CNET readers undoubtedly have) it's almost entirely owing to Apple, which has been the exclusive adopter of that interface technology, developed by Intel, on its Macs. While it's unclear whether Thunderbolt will catch on in a big way, the fact that Apple has first-adopter status is one reason other device makers are taking a serious look at the technology. And recent reports suggest that Acer, Asus, and Lenovo are moving to adopt Thunderbolt.

But Apple's standard-setter status is particularly conspicuous in display technology, according to Richard Shim, an analyst at DisplaySearch. He points to the probable adoption by Apple of Sharp's IGZO (indium gallium zinc oxide) technology in its future iPads.

"For Sharp, IGZO is a big deal," said Shim, in a phone interview this week. Why? If Sharp can make those displays in commercial volumes for Apple, IGZO may become an industry standard for the next-generation of displays, not to mention a licensing bonanza for Sharp, according to Shim.

IGZO's potential benefits include improved brightness at lower power consumption for very-high-resolution displays, according to Shim. That would, of course, include the rumored 2,048-by-1,536-pixel screen on the iPad 3.

Whether Sharp is able to supply the IGZO display at volumes--ultimately tens of millions of displays per quarter--that Apple needs for its upcoming spring iPad update is still unclear. But one thing is fairly certain: Apple has invested significant sums in Sharp's manufacturing facilities. So, the question really is, will Apple adopt it later rather than sooner?

"Sharp is the only one that can make those [IGZO] displays," said Shim.

And how would this technology cascade into mass-market adoption? A couple of recent examples may provide some guidance.

IPS: "IPS was marginal for a long time and largely ignored until Apple said it was important," said Shim, referring to In-Plane Switching technology, now trumpeted by virtually every display supplier because of the viewing angles it provides. "All of sudden a moribund technology became important in the market," he said.

As was so often the case with Apple, the late Steve Jobs was the proselytizer-in-chief. "IPS was really ignored in the notebook market [and] was written off until [Steve] Jobs started talking about it on stage," according to Shim.

Gorilla Glass: The same can be said largely of Corning's Gorilla Glass. "Gorilla Glass was not a big deal. In fact [Corning] didn't know what to do with it. [Then] Jobs called up Wendell Weeks [CEO] at Corning and said, hey, I want to use this glass. Then all of sudden it becomes popular," said Shim.

Of course it would be remiss not to mention the Retina display on Apple's iPhone 4 and 4S--a major selling point for both those phones. And that appears to be what Apple is trying to achieve with the next iPad.

Apple isn't the only company with the clout to move hardware standards into the mainstream, though. Intel is capable of this and so is Samsung. The former with technologies like Wi-Fi and now the ultrabook (which is really a riff on Apple's MacBook Air). The latter with display technologies like Super AMOLED.

But Apple's status as the most influential consumer-electronics product company in the world (I think it's safe to say that), gives it an unrivaled ability to establish de facto standards.

So, will IGZO make it into the so-called iPad 3? And if commercial production of IGZO is running late, will this push out the release date of the next iPad or will Apple turn to its tried-and-true suppliers LGD and Samsung for more traditional displays?

Those two suppliers are probably capable of making 2,048-by-1,536 displays in the volumes that Apple requires. Which means 2,048-by-1,536 will likely become the next resolution rage if it lands on the iPad 3, regardless of whether IGZO makes the cut.