For the first time, Apple is developing displays for its devices. It will be a new generation of displays

Apple has been using ready-made displays from other manufacturers for its gadgets for many years. The screen of the Apple Watch makes the LG Display. The OLED screen for the iPhone X, the first such screen in an Apple smartphone, was supplied by Samsung. The Apple company only slightly adjusts the displays for its devices, for example, calibrates iPhone screens to improve color reproduction. But this is where her involvement in working with displays ends.

Now, according to Bloomberg sources , Apple has decided that dependence on supplies from other companies makes it vulnerable. And since it is the richest company on the planet (with $ 252 billion in the finished cache), it is time to spend some of the reserves, and still develop your own screen. Yes, so that competitors in the market have no chance. And that means creating your own technology for displays, the most advanced and coolest, and then patenting it properly. Samsung, LG and others are now slightly in shock. On rumors of such a decision by Apple alone, their stock began to fall.

For the first time, Apple has been designing and developing its own displays - at a secret manufacturing base near its headquarters in California. This was reported to Bloomberg by "sources familiar with the situation." Those. the giant is going to make billions of dollars in investment in the creation of next-generation MicroLED screens. Such displays will contain other light-emitting components than modern OLED screens, and will make future gadgets thinner, brighter and less energy-intensive. Already there is talk that MicroLED is the first fundamentally new technology for displays since the appearance in OLED smartphones in 2013.

The Secret Apple Factory in Santa Clara. March 2018

New displays are much more difficult to produce than OLED screens. MicroLED uses not organic LEDs as pixels, but gallium nitride based diodes. They are extremely small in size, less than a tenth of the thickness of a human hair (it’s not for nothing that the word “micro” is in the name). Faced with the complexity of the process, Apple almost abandoned the project about a year ago. But now the engineers have found a solution, and the technology is almost ready for mass production. According to sources within the company, users will be able to see it in gadgets in a couple of years if there are no problems with the operation of the screens.

An ambitious project worth billions of dollars in investment is part of Apple’s strategy to bring back the design of key components to devices. For several years now, the company itself has been creating chipsets for its devices. Apple’s new move is expected to seriously hurt the business of Samsung, LG, Sharp and Japan Display, which release screens for the company's smartphones, tablets and smart watches, as well as cut back on Synaptics' profit, which makes interfaces for connecting the chipset to the screen.

When rumors of such a decision by Apple first appeared last week, stocks of dozens of companies collapsed by 5-15%. The company Universal Display (-16%), which holds patents for OLED technologies, has suffered the most. Investors were frightened that MicroLED could eventually make them unclaimed. Samsung (-2%), which has its own MicroLED developments, was the least affected.

Comparison of sizes of traditional LEDs and MicroLED

Control of MicroLED technology will allow Apple to stop fearing competition from Samsung, the leading display manufacturer, said Ray Soneira, owner of DisplayMate Technologies, a screen testing company. “This is one of those last chances. giant stand out against the backdrop of Korean and Chinese companies, which are gaining an ever-increasing market share. Everyone can buy a device with an LCD or OLED screen. But MicroLED can only be owned by Apple. ”

On the way - a lot of potential obstacles. Mass production of a new type of display will require new equipment, which will also need to be developed and released first. These are billions of dollars in costs that may not pay off if they find a critical problem in the screens or if another company creates an even more advanced variety of displays.

Apple's California factory is too small for mass production, but for now, the company wants to keep its technology under lock and key. To eliminate any possible leaks, screens and methods of their production are not disclosed even to partners in Asia - at whose enterprises, most likely, displays will eventually be produced in order to reduce their cost.

The secret initiative, Bloomberg sources say, was codenamed T159. She is led by Lynn Yongs , one of the company's veterans who helped create the first touchscreens for the iPhone and iPad. Under his control is a 5800 m2 production hall, the first and only of this type at Apple. The enterprise is located on an unremarkable street in Santa Clara, California, a 15-minute drive from Cupertino's Apple Park campus . About 300 engineers there are working on the first MicroLED displays (except for the concepts for televisions that Samsung showed at the end of February). Such displays will be 30 times brighter than OLED screens, will consume less power and will stay in line much longer.

Apple factory in Taiwan helping with the project

Nearby is another plant responsible for the so-called "LED transmission": the process of transferring individual pixels to a MicroLED screen. Apple received a patent for this technology with the purchase of startup LuxVue in 2014 About a year after this transaction, Apple opened a display development department, and it is rumored that it was LuxVue's engineers who made up its backbone. To test the capabilities of these developers, the company first secretly released several LCD displays at its Technology Center in Taiwan, and engineers from the Santa Clara factory had to modify the iPhone 7 using these “parts.” So that smartphones can work normally, but in quality (contrast, color reproduction, processing speed of commands, etc.) are not inferior to the present. Apple executives tested the resulting samples, and a few weeks later provided engineers with full funding for creating displays with MicroLED.

Due to the complexity of building an entire screen factory, Apple took several months to commission its secret factory in California. And only in recent months have engineers become confident that they will eventually succeed in replacing screens from Samsung and other suppliers. At the end of 2017, they first managed to produce fully functional MicroLED screens for future Apple Watch. Probably, these will be the first devices with new technology. They will not reach consumers for at least another two years, so far these are only prototypes. Nevertheless, according to rumors, Apple is very pleased with such results. Now she can begin to reduce her dependence on manufacturing firms.

Prototypes of Apple Watch with MicroLED can not yet be worn: the screens are simply connected to the computer from the outside of the watch. But engineers can test their responsiveness, and evaluate other characteristics. According to a person with access to the inside of the plant, the most noticeable is that they are much brighter than the current clock screens (they have an OLED matrix). It is also much easier for developers to control individual colors during calibration.

Technology most likely will not reach the iPhone in the next 3-5 years. The line of smartphones remains the main “cash cow” of the company, and, considering how many problems there were with innovations in the iPhone X, Apple executives want to make sure that this time the technology is really ready. First, it is tested on the Apple Watch - the same as with OLED screens (they appeared in watches in 2014, and on iPhone users saw them only at the end of 2017).

Samsung The Wall concept TV with MicroLED technology showcased at CES-2018. Diagonal - 146 inches, cost - about $ 100 thousand

Creating MicroLED displays is an extremely complex process. Depending on the size of the screen, they may contain millions of individual pixels. In each - three subpixels, red, green and blue LEDs. Each of these microscopic LEDs must be individually created and calibrated. All of them come from the donor plate and must be transferred to the MicroLED screen. Previously, Apple purchased these plates from third parties, such as Osram Licht and Epistar Corp., and only in recent months has learned to “grow” its own LEDs. Donor plates are created in a perfectly clean room inside the Santa Clara factory.

At the same production, prototypes of MicroLED displays are assembled, up to connecting the screen to the glass. Some of the components are manufactured in a factory in Taiwan. Apple is also developing its own thin-film transistors and screen drivers, key components in the display assembly. Now the factory in Santa Clara can produce several full-featured screens under the Apple Watch in a day (up to 2 inches in diagonal). Mass production, especially screens for the iPhone, is still a long way off.

Until the world is ready to see MicroLED, Apple will continue to play the role of proponent of OLED displays in public. This fall, the company plans to launch its second OLED iPhone, a gigantic 6.5-inch model (the iPhone X had a 5.8-inch screen). Work is also underway to expand the production of OLED from Samsung and include LG in this business.

Read more about MicroLED technology here .

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