As we know Apple is very keen to have very tight control over its products, both hardware and software; and in recent years has worked to increase its direct involvement in the production of components. SoCs (a long time ago for iPhones, more recently for Macs with the Apple Silicon initiative) have been one of the most recent major operations in this sense, but Apple does not intend to stop there – modems and even display.
According to Nikkei, over the past ten years, Apple has allegedly invested about a billion dollars in the development of micro-LEDsa next-generation technology that is still almost non-existent on the market, and would aim to in the future personally supervise the mass production. Investments have so far been directed to a research and development laboratory located in Taiwan, more precisely in the Longtan district and in the city of Taoyuan. Apparently the project partners are ams-Osram for the actual micro-LED components, LG for the substrates and TSMC for the wafers on which the chips are printed. According to rumors, the Longtan facility employs over 1,000 people and has also dedicated itself to developing so-called micro-OLED displays for its virtual/augmented reality viewers.
Even if from the name one would think of a simple evolution of mini-LEDs, micro-LEDs are more similar to OLEDs: the principle, simplifying, is that each pixel on the screen corresponds to an LED capable of emitting light and varying its color independently, while in mini-LEDs we always speak of a backlighting grid for a liquid crystal panel, even if much more thicker than seen with previous techniques. Compared to OLEDs, micro-LEDs on paper offer several advantages: they are much smaller, consume less energy, the panels can be thinner, the brightness can be higher, and they are not organic, with potentially significant implications for longevity. Like OLEDs, micro-LEDs can also be used on foldable/flexible displays.
The development of micro-LEDs is proceeding, but the wait will still be long. It is expected that the first panel equipped with this technology will not arrive before 2025; Apple is naturally targeting iPhones, but will likely start with Apple Watches, which are being made in much smaller volumes, to get things started. A device as small as a smartwatch still makes a lot of sense: micro-LEDs, as we said, are extremely smaller than OLEDs, and every millimeter of space is crucial in wrist wearables. It could also be much simpler to integrate sensors of various types into the panels – both for tracking various biometric parameters and, for example, a fingerprint scanner. However, the challenges to be overcome for mass production are still many.
According to analysts, an important part of this initiative is the desire to reduce its reliance on third-party display manufacturers (which are the single most expensive component of an iPhone, to name but one), especially Samsung: since the arrival of iPhone X in 2017 the OLED technology, of which Samsung is the undisputed queen, has spread more and more in the Apple portfolio. So far, Apple has “limited” itself to releasing the specifications of the panels it needs to manufacturers and verifying very carefully that the quality level is adequate to its standards. It is worth noting that, of course, others are not watching: Samsung itself is also investing in micro-LEDs, among many other things.