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iPhone display supplier sees OLED smartphone deluge from 2021

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Mr Kikuoka says consumers are more cost conscious in their smartphone preferences and the industry is gaining a new appreciation for the price competitiveness offered by LCDs.

Tokyo

JAPAN Display Inc (JDI), the struggling supplier of mobile screens to Apple Inc, says it has about a year before it needs to decide on whether to take a plunge on next-generation organic light-emitting diode displays (OLED).

While OLED panels are slimmer, more energy-efficient and offer higher contrast, JDI's liquid crystal displays (LCDs) will retain a price advantage that keeps them competitive in smartphones through 2021, the company's new chief executive officer Minoru Kikuoka said in an interview. He anticipates that a more decisive shift to the new technology may occur in that time period, declining to elaborate on plans of specific customers.

When Apple launched its first OLED iPhone in 2017, it was seen as the beginning of the end for the LCD's long reign. For Japan Display, which relies on Apple for a large portion of its revenue, that spelled trouble because the company was falling behind in the development of the new screens. But the iPhone X, which used an OLED display from Samsung Electronics Co, didn't sell as well as anticipated, and Apple followed up a year later with an LCD-based addition to its lineup with the iPhone XR - giving the Japanese company some breathing room.

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With the smartphone market plateauing and fancier screens failing to ratchet up demand from users already content with their existing devices, value for money has once again risen in importance for people considering a new purchase, according to the CEO.

"We are seeing consumers put more emphasis on affordability when it comes to their smartphone preferences," Mr Kikuoka said. "The industry is now gaining a new appreciation for the kind of price competitiveness offered by the LCDs."

Apple's 2019 phone lineup includes one LCD model - the iPhone 11, which Apple launched at a starting price US$50 lower than its predecessor - and the company plans to add a second one in the first half of next year to replace the ageing iPhone 8. But the Cupertino, California-based company may still shift entirely to OLED for new phones as early as 2020. Though it will still sell a number of older LCD models, the time for Japan Display is running out.

After repeatedly pushing back mass production of its own OLED screens, JDI is finally close to having its first OLED product, Mr Kikuoka said, declining to give further details other than to say that it won't be a smartphone screen. A source confirmed an earlier report that JDI's first OLED will be used in the Apple Watch. Still, competing in the mobile phone arena would take billions of dollars in additional investment, money that Japan Display doesn't have.

"There was a time when we felt the need to rush a shift to OLED," Mr Kikuoka said. "Without a partner who could pitch in on the capital side, we simply can't do it." Constituted from the remains of numerous ailing Japanese display makers in 2012, JDI mistimed large investments in LCD capacity and found itself struggling against abler competition from South Korean and Chinese rivals. Five straight years of losses have sent it in search of a capital infusion from overseas, but the list of potential suitors has continued to dwindle. When Mr Kikuoka took the helm in September, the company had just reached a new low, warning that if it's not able to raise fresh capital it may face difficulties continuing its business.

Japan Display said last month that it lost another potential investor as China's Harvest Tech Investment Management Co withdrew from its rescue plan. That was the latest blow since June, when Cosgrove Global Ltd, Topnotch Corporate Ltd and Taiwan's TPK Holding Co left a consortium that in April agreed to an infusion of 117 billion yen (S$1.5 billion). JDI still expects to receive an investment from Oasis Management Co and aims to raise a total of 50 billion yen by the end of the year. An unnamed customer that had previously been reported to be Apple may put in US$200 million.

Chinese screen makers BOE Technology Group Co and Tianma Microelectronics Co had also shown interest in JDI's OLED technology, but both have since focused on developing their own versions. Having an actual track record of mass-producing OLED panels might bring those companies back to the table in the future, Mr Kikuoka said. A joint venture at Japan Display's Hakusan plant in central Japan would be the easiest route, but exporting its manufacturing knowhow to China is also an option, he said. JDI could also be open to offers from private equity and other sources of financing.

Mr Kikuoka, 57, spent the first part of his career in finance with stints in Industrial Bank of Japan and Merrill Lynch. After more than a decade at electronics parts and materials suppliers Nitto Denko Corp and Nidec Corp, he joined Japan Display's finance division in 2017. He was named chief financial officer in May before advancing to the top post last month.

In August, Japan Display reported quarterly sales at the lowest level since the company went public in 2014, as demand from smartphone makers cratered with no prospects of recovery in the near future. The company has shed about 1,200 employees through a voluntary retirement plan, sold off some display manufacturing equipment and suspended production at one plant.

Over-investing in factories at the peak of the demand cycle is only one of the causes for JDI's current dire straits, said Mr Kikuoka. The company also fell victim to complacency because it was backed by Innovation Network Corp of Japan, a state-owned fund that remains JDI's largest shareholder.

"That resulted in a culture that allowed losses to continue and a sense that someone would always come to our rescue," he said. "What was missing was a real hunger to strive." BLOOMBERG