Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chemistry and the Apple TV

Such may not be the case today but formerly at MIT two terms of calculus, or the equivalent, was required for any degree, even what passes for liberal arts there. Engineers had to take a 3rd term. Chemical engineers and materials science folk took 18.03 “differential equations”, EEs took 18.031, also differential equations but with a greater emphasis on linear systems. The difference in the math embodied much of the difference between those branches of engineering, EE’s general deal with linear systems, chemistry is decidedly non-linear.

In practice, what this frequently means is that product development is very different for chemicals and materials than for electronics. In electronics, in linear systems, you can generally reduce the product risk and speed the time to market by testing the subsystems independently. In chemical systems even if different chemistries only touch each other rather than are mixed, the interface itself is a new system that must be tested and examined. Ions can migrate across boundaries or even re-arrange themselves within a monolithic material changing or defeating the product performance. In the display industry, when displays were actually made in the US, much of the industry was composed of chemical and materials folk. Today, as displays are all purchased from Asia, the domestic industry is largely EEs that design end product and develop display specifications.

Motorola spent close to a billion dollars building a fab and developing a process to make Field Emissions Displays (FEDs). In the end, they discovered tramp elements were migrating from their substrate into the FED structure. Using a different substrate, a different glass, meant starting over completely in process development. The investment was written off. A CRT glass plant once had to throw away several full days (the plant ran 24/7) of production during a product shortage due to parts per billion of fluorine in the glass. Fluorine outgasses from the glass in CRTs and is a powerful phosphor poison as is copper. Westinghouse, the inventor of the active matrix LCD, was put out of the TV business by a parts per billion copper problem in their plant water reclamation system. TV tubes would go dark about 6 months after consumers took them home.

Reportedly, Apple recently hired the OLED expert from LG prompting speculation that the much rumored Apple branded TV set will be an OLED. In the recent release of the iPhone 5 Apple had issues with the anodized aluminum coating on the case and with the sapphire lens cover. The lens cover was an optics issue but one that would have been expected if the company had truly comprehended the difference between a glass which it is familiar with and a transparent ceramic as is sapphire, fundamentally not the same thing. Two of the iPhone 5 product issues stemmed from predictable issues due to the nature of the materials they were using. Motorola's FED problem could have been anticipated as well. After Corning sold its consumer products business, the cookware industry is now rediscovering the difference between tempered flint glass and aluminum-borosilicate which was formerly synonymous with the term Pyrex.

OLED technology has had a long gestation period due to stability issues with the material. I would not expect Apple to venture so far into new materials technology. On a LinkedIn thread regarding LCD stability and suitability as outdoor digital signage, one of the posters commented that OLEDs might provide a better solution. If any stability issues remain with OLEDs, 24/7 operation and the heat and light of an outdoor installation will certainly bring those to light more so than use as a consumer TV. I would expect a proving period in TVs, as well as a cost reduction period, before OLEDs start finding their way into outdoor signage. I don’t expect that proving period to involve an Apple branded OLED TV. If Apple comes to market with a TV, I expect it to be an LCD, a very good LCD, but an LCD none-the-less. I also expect that the Apple magic will be in how its used rather than just a good looking screen. When Tim Cook said, “When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years", he wasn't referring to the picture quality.


  1. Batteries present significant comprehension issues for electronics makers as well. the industry has had episodes of battery failures sometimes resulting in melting product with the potential to start fires as well. As with glass and glass chemistry, the supply base for batteries is thin due the concentration of knowledge about the product in a few places.

    After the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, electronics makers were relieved to find that although the limited battery supply chain was disrupted, the impact was minimal. It was not until a couple of weeks later that they discovered that the battery were all getting a key electrode from a plant that was within the earthquake zone.

  2. Unlike glass, crystals, especially single crystals, are anisotropic. Being that the window for the iPhone 5 was so small, I can imagine that Apple was getting byproduct from other applications; bits and pieces of various crystal planes. One plane might not have the same optical effects as another which could be why the lens flare issue slipped through.

  3. Some confirmation of the basic point of this article, "Apple's CEO says OLED displays aren't good enough for Apple"


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