Apple Inc.’s Samsung Problem — The Motley Fool

Based on numerous reliable press and analyst reports, it’s generally accepted that the 5.8-inch organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, display found on Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) recently announced iPhone X is manufactured exclusively by Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) Display.

The fact that Samsung appears to be the only display manufacturer capable of providing displays good enough for the iPhone X is reportedly driving up Apple’s display costs. For this reason alone, Apple needs to cultivate alternative sources for OLED displays as quickly as possible, particularly as Apple reportedly aims to proliferate OLED displays, which it markets as “Super Retina Displays,” more broadly across its iPhone portfolio.

Apple's iPhone X.

Image source: Apple.

However, there’s another big reason that Apple needs to shift its display purchases as far away from Samsung as possible.

A massive conflict of interest

It’s clear that display technology is going to become an increasingly significant differentiator in the premium smartphone market over time. With the iPhone X, Apple appears to have something of a unique OLED display.

Indeed, Apple made sure to highlight in its iPhone X marketing materials that the display on the iPhone X is “the first screen that rises to the standards of iPhone.” During its launch event, Apple fleshed that claim out, asserting that previous OLED displays fell short of the one used in the iPhone X in the areas of color accuracy, brightness, and support for wide color.

That’s all well and good, but even if the display on the iPhone X turns out to be the best-performing smartphone display ever put in a smartphone — something, I might add, I wouldn’t be surprised to see given the insanely high-quality displays that Apple put in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus — how long can it hold that crown?

Remember that Apple’s highest-profile rival in the premium smartphone market is Samsung Mobile, which is part of the broader Samsung Electronics. Samsung Display, as you might’ve guessed, is also part of Samsung Electronics.

Now, about two years ago, Bloomberg reported that Samsung Display formed a special team of approximately 200 individuals to work “exclusively” on displays for Apple. Moreover, that report claimed that this team isn’t allowed to share business details with third parties, even other groups within Samsung.

On paper, this suggests that Apple, which counts a significant number of display technologists among its staff, can work with Samsung to develop “unique and differentiating” display technologies, helping to give it a competitive edge.

However, if Apple’s collaboration with Samsung Display leads Samsung Mobile to glean important insights into Apple’s future display technology plans and adjust its plans in response, then Apple should work to sever its ties with Samsung Display as quickly as possible.

Given that Samsung’s logic chip manufacturing division has been accused of appropriating trade secrets from a rival to accelerate the development of its logic chip technologies, I’m not entirely convinced that Apple-specific display technology won’t find its way into displays found on next-generation Samsung Mobile smartphones. 

Unfortunately, given Samsung’s pole position in the manufacture of OLED displays, Apple probably won’t have much choice but to use Samsung Display to manufacture most, if not all, its OLED displays for at least a few more years.

Ashraf Eassa has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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