Is OLED Apple's Next Flash Disaster?


Apple's decision to not allow Adobe's Flash technology onto any of its mobile devices was once the buzz of the blogosphere. Steve Jobs' determiniation to battle for HTML5 and other protocols led to the irritation of many, and the reality that for a period, the functionality of many websites didn't work on your iPhone or iPad. The company released a comprehensive explanation for its decision, but some consumers probably made alternative purchase decisions because of Apple's position. You didn't need to be a huge Adobe supporter to want website content to just work.

Fast-forward to today, and you have to wonder if Tim Cook's railing against OLED technology at a recent Goldman Sachs event is a little bit of history repeating itself. One of the highlight buzzes of this year's Consumer Electronics Show was the OLED technology demonstrated by Samsung. With capabilities including screen flexibility and near indestructibility, it's difficult to see how picture quality will compete with the display options that OLED make possible, but until they're actually available, it's hard to be sure.

A brief look back at Flash
For a specific period, Adobe Flash was the cornerstone of much of Web design, allowing users to integrate the eye-popping multimedia functionality that allowed one site to stand out from others. One of the central arguments Adobe advanced in favor of its adoption by Apple was the reality that users couldn't get a "full Web" experience without Flash. Apple countered that alternative options were available that favored mobile devices. Since the height of the battle, and as more and more sites go to a specific mobile version, the issue has become less pronounced. I can't remember the last time I had a Flash-driven browsing problem. Even so, there is anecdotal evidence that the mess hurt Apple, if only very temporarily. All the same, Adobe and Apple seem to still be going strong.

Cook's mixed messages
Cook recently slammed the picture quality and color saturation of OLED displays, such as those offered on the Samsung Galaxy S III that's helping Samsung give Apple a serious run for its money. Cook argues: "If you ever buy anything online and really want to know what the color is, as many people do, you should really think twice before you depend on the color from an OLED display." Not surprisingly, he believes the company's Retina display is the superior choice and the obvious choice.

There are two problems with taking this position too seriously. First, what else is Apple's CEO going to say? "We really wish what we have were better, but the competition has made better choices and had more success"? As Apple dipped to $200 per share, Cook would be fired and become the subject of the largest shareholder lawsuit in the history of litigation. We expect our company CEOs to talk up their products. Just don't take them too seriously as news.

The second, and more curious, reason to raise your eyebrows is that Apple seems to being doing some critical hiring in the OLED space. A recent story reported by the OLED Association explains that Apple recently hired Jueng Jil Lee, whose OLED experience is greater than that of anyone currently on Apple's staff. Lee's experience includes time at both LG Display and Cambridge Display Technology. The story is vague as to Lee's specific role in the Apple ranks, but it strongly suggests that he will be involved in integrating OLED technology into Apple's arsenal.

It's obviously worth noting that the story comes from a source whose very purpose is the promotion of OLED technology. You would no more expect a negative report from this group than one panning Retina displays from Cook. Still, to the extent that the news is factual, it certainly places a different patina on Cook's recent words. While rumors about the pending release of an iWatch from Apple abound, the company is badly in need of a game-changer.

While it's unlikely that a fully flexible screen is on the immediate horizon, one of the innovations Samsung demonstrated at the CES was the functionality possible if an OLED screen is wrapped around the side of the device. Then, even with the phone upside down or with a cover on, a text message can be displayed on the side. There has been no confirmation that the technology will be included in the new Galaxy S IV when it is released, but the suggestion has been made.

This may not be actionable just yet from an investment perspective, but if Apple's foray into OLED proves accurate, that is definitely bullish for the stock. Unlike Flash, OLED has the potential to change a great deal about the very nature of smartphones, and Apple can't afford to be left behind. Watching for developments in the arena is a must for all Apple shareholders.

There's no doubt that Apple is at the center of technology's largest revolution ever and that longtime shareholders have been handsomely rewarded, with more than 1,000% gains. However, there is a debate raging as to whether Apple remains a buy. The Motley Fool's senior technology analyst and managing bureau chief, Eric Bleeker, is prepared to fill you in on both reasons to buy and reasons to sell Apple and what opportunities are left for the company (and, more importantly, your portfolio) going forward. To get instant access to his latest thinking on Apple, simply click here now.

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Fool contributor Doug Ehrman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Adobe Systems, Apple, and Goldman Sachs and owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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