The Bruising Brawl Over OLED

October 24, 2018, 12:00 PM UTC
Attendees gaze at an overhead OLED display made by LG at the 2017 IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin.KRISZTIAN BOCSI—BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
Krisztian Bocsi—Bloomberg via Getty Images

LOOK AT ANY DIGITAL DISPLAYS LATELY? Of course you have. You’ve craned your neck over a smartphone, glanced at a car’s entertainment system, and gaped at a big-screen TV. Deep down, you’re horrified that someone might see the telling totals calculated by the Screen Time app on your iPhone. (Time spent responding to political social media posts by your extended family: two hours above average.)

Sure, your attraction to glowing panels of light is a little animalistic, a bit moth-like. But have you actually looked at them lately? They’re just … better than they used to be. Lines are crisp, colors pop, and you get lost in their inky blackness. They look different from the displays on your old devices. That’s because of a technology called OLED.

OLED—which stands for organic light-emitting diode—may share a few letters with LED and LCD, the predominant display technologies of the past decade. But it’s fundamentally different. “OLED emits its own light, and that really offers distinct advantages when it comes to pixel quality,” says LG Electronics USA spokesman John Taylor. “Every pixel can be individually controlled, so that means it can create perfect black levels—the most important element to a great picture.”

OLED also commands a much higher price. It dominates the high-end market segments it’s in, from phones (Samsung’s $720 Galaxy S9) to televisions (LG’s $2,000 C8). Most important, only a handful of corporations—including Samsung, LG, and Sony—control its limited supply.

“Almost every company is investing to compete with Samsung,” says Jerry Kang, who leads display technology analysis at IHS, the market research firm, from Seoul. “The other companies are trying to rapidly follow.”

Kang’s firm believes the global OLED market will grow from about $26 billion in sales this year to $37.5 billion in 2022, driven largely by mobile devices. Who’s winning or losing depends on the device: Samsung supplies OLED displays to the world’s top two phonemakers (itself and Apple), yet an early decision against OLED inadvertently handed the premium-TV market to LG and Sony, each of which claimed more than a third of all sales last year, according to IHS. (“We firmly believe that we can continue to expand the world of possibilities with our OLED displays,” says a Samsung Display spokesman, adding that the company started investing in development of the technology 18 years ago.)

The war rages on as OLED prices continue to plummet and a once-premium innovation goes mainstream—just in time for the winter holiday shopping season. “It’s still relatively young technology,” says LG’s Taylor. “We’re not going to take our foot off the accelerator.”

A version of this article appears in the November 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “Black And Blue All Over.”

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