Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that Apple has a secretive facility in Santa Clara that is looking into designing its own MicroLED displays. These displays will supposedly debut in the Apple Watch and eventually expand out to Apple's other products, like iPhone and iPad.
On the surface, this feels like a good improvement for Apple devices. Diving deeper, however, it signals a potential massive advantage for Apple in the smartwatch wars. One that could hurt the rest of the industry's ability to compete, especially as Apple shipped half of all smartwatches in 2017.
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Apple has wanted end-to-end control of all its devices for some time, and it's no surprise that it continues to invest in technologies and buy companies to do this. Way back in 2008, Apple bought a company called Palo Alto Semiconductor. It only had 150 employees, but PA Semi specialized in chips that could process a lot of data with a small amount of energy.
The company went on to form the basis of Apple's chip team, which has gone on to build incredible processors for iPhone and iPad that continue to trump the competition in benchmark tests. It also put together the S series of chips that powers the Apple Watch.
To see why a custom-designed Apple display is a good thing, you just have to look at how Apple's custom processors have turned out. Yeah, they're powerful, but they've also allowed Apple to develop additional technologies that contribute to its famed combination of hardware and software. The Secure Enclave, for instance, is built into the S2 processor and is entrusted with protecting your biometric data.
The motion coprocessor is responsible for handling nothing but how you move. These things relieve stress on the main processor and, when paired with Apple's software, create good experiences for you.
The benefits of MicroLED have been laid bare plenty of times. It makes for a brighter display that uses half the power of an LED display while also enabling thinner devices. The benefits of an Apple-designed MicroLED are a little different, and you just have to look at Samsung to get a hint of why.
Samsung designs and makes its own displays, and that has allowed it to work toward proprietary tech like curved and foldable displays. The rub with Samsung, however, has always been the software. It's not that its version of Android is too colorful or Tizen is crap (it's not, we really like it), it's that it's dividing resources between two. They're separate entities, which keeps Samsung from converging them like Apple does, as watchOS and iOS are essentially linked.
Since Apple doesn't have that problem, it can integrate displays with softwares even better than it does now, which has already resulted in some of the best displays in the industry and features like True Tone.
Chasing the big Apple
Apple's other competitors in the smartwatch world have similar disadvantages. Fossil isn't really a technology company, it leans on other companies, like Qualcomm, to provide technology for its smartwatches. Thus, it can't exert the control that Apple can.
Fitbit, on the other hand, is a technology company, but it's not one with the resources or the ability (yet) to match a potential MicroLED Apple Watch. The Ionic is an impressive package, but let's not forget that actually putting together the smartwatch proved to be a tough time for the company. Fitbit's software also feels far more janky than Apple's, at least for the time being.
What about Google? It's a platform holder for now, and it's one that seems to have only now figured out how to proceed with its OS, rebranding from Android Wear to Wear OS. Its hero watch, the LG Watch Sport, is also extremely long in the tooth and Google needs to step more into making hardware and exerting the type of control Apple has if it wants to compete. It has in the smartphone world with the Pixel, creating an image processor and combining that with AI to make a phone that has the best camera in a phone. But right now we're still seeing the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor in Wear OS watches, and that's more than two years old.
All of these companies have things holding them back. For some its hardware, for others it's software, or even bringing the two together effectively.
Back in 2014, Apple acquired LuxeVue, a company that holds over 30 patents connected to MicroLEDs, including flexible displays. So the best way to look at Apple-designed MicroLED displays is to think of it not as a feature, but as a platform for Apple to build on, just like what it did with PA Semi.
That's an advantage that Apple's competitors in the smartwatch world may not be able to match for quite some time.