Kodak cultivates displays

Company establishes business unit to advance organic LED technology.

Eastman Kodak Co. is pushing forward with what it says is a bright idea: a new flat-panel-display technology that offers greater luminescence and generally outshines current LCD displays in performance.

The Rochester, N.Y., company late last month established the Kodak Display business unit, which is devoted to advancing Kodaks so-called organic LED, or OLED, display technology.

OLED was first developed by Kodak researchers in the 1980s. The company is targeting its technology for use in digital cameras, mobile phones and car radios, but in three to five years, the company expects to see it used in computer appliances and notebook PCs.

In recent years, the company has partnered with Sanyo Corp. to promote the adoption of OLED displays in small-screen devices and has licensed the technology to several companies.

Simple OLED screens are already being used in stereos by Pioneer Corp. and TDK Corp., as well as in a mobile phone by Motorola Inc. Kodak is now trying to get companies to implement relatively new full-color OLED displays.

"We will try to get systems people to design this in, and we will accelerate the commercialization path to put more OLED panels into the market," said Les Polgar, who joined Kodak last month as president and general manager of the new business unit, which will be based in Walnut Creek, Calif., to be closer to component manufacturers based in the Bay area.

Kodak hired Polgar away from Etec Systems Inc., where he was vice president and general manager of the companys Semiconductor Products Group.

Among his first priorities, Polgar said in an interview recently, is to spur broader adoption of OLED displays in handheld devices before eventually targeting larger-screen devices such as Internet appliances and notebook PCs.

"Im a firm believer in building the business floor by floor and not building the top floor, which is the larger-sized screens, before building the bottom floor," Polgar said.

In general, OLED monitors have several advantages over LCD units. For one, OLEDs produce light by passing current through a thin coating of carbon-based elements (thus the name "organic") and dont require backlighting, as is needed on LCD screens. In addition, OLED screens can be as thin as a dime and weigh less than LCD units, effectively lightening the load for mobile products.

"The biggest advantage, in a word, is performance," Polgar said. "You can put an advanced LCD panel next to it and run the same signal to both side by side, and the OLED is not only sharper, clearer and brighter, it also has a much wider viewing angle—165 degrees—and consumes less power."

Yet, while OLED offers some attractive advantages for consumers, the new technology faces some difficulty in winning over manufacturers. In particular, the LCD business remains extremely lucrative for manufacturers, with demand outstripping supply. But in the next few years, analysts expect LCD supplies to outpace demand, resulting in price cuts that will slash profits. If LCD profits fall, manufacturers may become more open to OLED.

"OLEDs have shown incredible progress in the past year and comprise the hottest new area in the display business," said David Mentley, an analyst at Stanford Resources Inc., a research company based in San Jose, Calif., that focuses on electronic displays.

"The products shipping right now are limited to low-resolution, small-area displays—as are all new display technologies in their infancy," Mentley said. "We know from experience that every new display type must evolve through the various stages until they reach the top. ... OLEDs will surely do this also."

Stanford estimates the current OLED market value to be $3 million but predicts that it will surge to more than $700 million by 2005.

Polgar also is forecasting a bright future for OLED. "In time," he said, "displays based on Kodak technology could be installed in just about any consumer electronics device, from cell phones to computer monitors."