HALFWAY THROUGH the noughties manufacturers of display panels were wowing punters at CES with prototypes using Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technology. Initially developed by Kodak, the OLED screens produced sumptuous visuals with energy efficient 1000,000:1 contrast ratios that could be viewed even in direct sunlight. Really, how many technologies had the word 'organic' in their names? You could probably offset your carbon footprint just by powering one up.
We were told that OLED technology would be a five-year roadmap away from mass adoption. Display makers were aquiver with anticipation at how they would deploy OLEDs over a wide range of display products. A chorus of angels could be heard singing in the background. The future was very bright indeed.
While Sony wasn't one of the first hardware manufacturers to wave the flag for OLED it did take over as the standard bearer for innovations in the OLED market. Just two years after the first prototypes appeared at CES, Sony demoed its own in 2007 with the worlds first 27-inch OLED TV. It delivered a full HD 1080p screen and Sony's former president, Ryoji Chubachi told a briefing of tech buyers, "I want this world's first OLED TV to be the symbol of the revival of Sony's technological prowess. I want this to be the flag under which we charge forwards to turn the fortunes around."
At the time of the debut Sony claimed it didn't have any plans for full scale production but that prototype bore fruit in the guise of a huge announcement at next year's CES in 2008. In 2008 Sony unveiled the XEL-1, the word's first commercial OLED TV. Randy Waynick, senior vice president of Sony Electronics' home products division said, "Not only does the technology change the form factor of television, it delivers flawless picture quality that will soon become the standard against which all TVs are measured. The launch of an OLED TV is one of the most important industry landmarks"
The £3,000 asking price for the XEL-1 was a lot of cash, about the same cost of 50 to 60 inches of display real estate on a prosumer plasma screen about five years ago. We also know that Sony has a commendable history of supporting next generation technology but the screen size of the XEL-1 came in at... 11-inches. It seemed that the economies of scales for OLED displays weren't serviceable and mass adoption would have to wait.
Then Reuters reported this week that Sony was going to stop manufacturing OLED TVs in Japan and if you can't sell next generation technology in Japan where can you sell it? Sony said it would stop production when the last of its current models leave the factory floor and claimed, "We will continue to consider new products and applications including OLED TVs."
So is it sayonara OLED? Not even close. While Sony's attempts to sell high-end TV's have been halted, it has deployed OLED displays in a range of its other products, including its NWZ-X1050B and NWZ-X1060B Walkmans and some Cybershot digital cameras. Microsoft is offering OLED screens in its Zune HD music player and Nikon launched a Coolpix S70 camera, which has a 3.5-inch OLED touchscreen. LG bought Kodak's OLED business in 2009 while Samsung unveiled the world's biggest OLED at this year's CES, along with an OLED photocard.
Sony has only said told the public that it stopped production in Japan but we reckon it's a suspension of activity until the economies of scale shift enough to make mass adoption economically viable. There's self-emitting light at the end of the tunnel. µ