The Industry

Staying in Control

Apple is reportedly developing new display technology. Here’s why that matters.

Person putting finger up to mouth signifying a secret, on an iPhone screen.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Kristina Flour/Unsplash.

Whether you think of Apple as an industry innovator or merely a savvy iterator, one thing is undeniable: When Apple adopts something, others are quick to follow. This is most clear with the appearance of the iPhone. Samsung notably mimicked many of the iPhone’s early designs—an issue the duo went to court over in 2012—as did many other Android phone makers back in those early days. More recently, we’re seeing it in things like the iPhone’s notch, the addition of augmented reality and facial recognition features, and the elimination of the headphone jack in favor of wireless earbuds. When Apple’s planning a big change, it’s understandable it would want to keep it secret for as long as possible as a competitive advantage. Such is the case with Apple’s latest secret: a new kind of display technology.

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Bloomberg reported Sunday that Apple is working on a revolutionary new kind of display: MicroLED. Initially the intellectual property of LuxVue, a startup Apple acquired in 2014, MicroLED is a next generation display technology that uses a different light-emitting chemical compound than today’s OLED displays. MicroLED, in theory, could pave the way for brighter, more efficient, and slimmer displays. But each display is complex and can contain millions of pixels—each with red, blue, and green subpixels—that need to be properly calibrated. In practice, getting the technology right has been challenging. Apple, which hopes to produce the displays itself, has kept it tightly under wraps.

For the past few years, Apple has been working on MicroLED technology at a research facility in Taiwan and a 62,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Santa Clara, California, Bloomberg reports. To test the feasibility of in-house manufacturing, Apple built sample displays, which it then retrofit to iPhone 7 units; the project was successful, and Apple continued with development. The first device to get such a display will be the Apple Watch, if Apple follows through with the experimental endeavor. Consumers wouldn’t see that for a year or two; MicroLED displays in iPhones would be at least three to five years away.

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While display production is new to Apple, bringing such development in-house is not. Apple has streamlined its hardware needs by bringing chip design within its fold: first with processing and graphics—beginning with the A4 chip in the iPhone 4 in 2010 and including the 64-bit A7 processor in 2013’s iPhone 5S—and more recently with power management, according to reports out of Asia. With chip production completely in its control, the company can save money and more tightly integrate the hardware and software in its products.

Apple clearly thinks that MicroLED could be a differentiating factor—and it’s trying to keep that technology out of competitors’ hands for as long as possible. Apple normally works with a number of third-party manufacturers when it comes to screen tech, companies such as Universal Display, Sharp, LG, or Samsung. (Stock prices for these companies dropped Monday morning following Bloomberg’s report, an indicator of how important Apple’s business is to them.) If Apple handed over its new display recipe to one of these companies, it’d be only a matter of time before it appeared in non-Apple products. While Bloomberg notes that Apple would like to manufacture these new displays completely in-house, it’s more realistic—from a cost and risk perspective—to expect that the company will eventually have to outsource production. It matters when it does so, though.

With consumers seeing less need to trade in their handsets every two years, a brighter, more power-efficient display could help boost sales for the company by offering consumers a compelling reason to upgrade—especially as competitors’ displays have bested Apple’s. If Apple does indeed go all out and handle MicroLED manufacturing, it will be a huge snub to its current manufacturers but a boon for a company trying to control every aspect of the production process and keep competitors one step behind.

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