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Flexible OLED: Samsung already defending an unassailable lead

Samsung enjoys 97% market share in flexible OLED displays. But in light of recent developments, the company is "making massive investments" to stay on top.

Published onFebruary 21, 2017

2017 will be the year of flexible OLED displays. While this may sound like a pretty familiar refrain, right up there with revolutionary new battery tech, graphene this and vanadium dioxide that, this time it’s different. I promise.

It’s pretty easy to get desensitized to this kind of claim, with every new year heralding some exciting ground-breaking tech that’s going to change your life and revolutionize the mobile landscape. That is, when whatever it is finally makes it to consumer products… in five to ten years. But 2017 is apparently that year for Samsung, with both flexible and foldable devices reportedly in its product lineup.

These won't be mainstream consumer products: they'll be expensive and made in limited quantities.

Obviously, these devices won’t be mainstream consumer products. They’ll be expensive, made in limited quantities and designed more to gauge consumer interest and field test the tech itself rather than to make a buck.

We saw the same thing a few years ago with LG’s flexible plastic OLED panels on the G Flex and Samsung’s Galaxy Round which first introduced consumers to the idea of a curved display. The Galaxy Round never saw a successor but the curved screen idea and edge-based software features eventually morphed into what became the Galaxy Note Edge. And now Samsung will only offer the Galaxy S8 with a curved edge display.

In 2017, flexible phones will finally go from concept and prototype to actual consumer product.

So while the two flexible or folding devices Samsung is expected to put on the market this year won’t make their way into consumers’ pockets in anything resembling the volume of a Galaxy S8 or Galaxy Note 8, they will finally go from concept and prototype stage to actual consumer product. This is a critical change.

Once flexible and foldable screens become normalized socially and the tech itself is fine-tuned enough for inclusion in something more mainstream than a super-niche product, you can bet they will catch on very quickly. In many ways, this is the smartphone future we’ve all been dreaming of for years. It may not be until the Galaxy S10 or Note 10 that flagships go flexible, but that day is coming.

Suffice it to say, Samsung, like many other companies making OLED displays, is banking on flexible panels being the future. The difference between most display manufacturers and Samsung though is that Samsung Display already dominates 97 percent of the small to medium-sized flexible display market.

It may not be until the Galaxy S10 or Note 10 that flagships go flexible, but that day is coming.

While this may seem like a comfortably unassailable lead, Samsung is already concerned about recent Chinese investments in flexible OLED production. So much so that Samsung is “making massive investments” to maintain its already-dominant position.

Samsung has already reportedly signed a deal to supply Apple with 80 percent of the more than 200 million OLED panels needed for the iPhone 8 and there have been persistent rumors of a premium edition iPhone with a curved display (although today we’re hearing that production yield and drop test problems have put the kibosh on the curved screen version).

Regardless, Samsung is targeting not just flexible, but also foldable and rolling displays in order to stay competitive across all emerging display types. Samsung Display has already highlighted small OLED panels as a critical part of its flexible OLED plans, both for its own devices as well as for the companies it supplies (likewise, LG is now supplying Samsung with LCD panels).

Samsung Display has already highlighted small OLED panels as a critical part of its flexible OLED plans.

Flexible OLED shipments are expected to reach almost 150 million units this year, with the market estimated to be worth almost $10 billion in 2017 alone. Shipments are set to double by 2020, according to research firm IHS Markit.

UHD OLED TV shipments are also expected to grow by 40 percent this year. Naturally, Samsung also has plans to “diversify lineups for large UHD TVs”. With OLED production becoming cheaper than LCD last year and flexible and folding smartphones finally on our doorsteps, we’re entering the dawn of a new age of smartphone design, one that will once again be dominated by Samsung.

Let us know your thoughts on flexible and foldable display tech in the comments. Just how quickly do you think flexible will take over and what form will it take?

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