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Apple struggles to break free from Samsung display reliance

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Apple’s relationship with Samsung has always been contentious, and even now, the two frequently butt heads over iPhone display technology.

For many years, Apple has been developing microLED display technology for the Apple Watch and other products. But Apple engineers are finding that the display technology is more challenging than they expected, according to a report on Monday from The Information.

Samsung has been protective of its manufacturing technologies. According to multiple former Apple employees, Samsung has barred Apple engineers from entering its factories.

In a 2017 incident, Apple engineers flew to South Korea to meet with Samsung’s display division employees. But they couldn’t enter Samsung’s facilities, including office buildings, because the company wanted to protect its intellectual property covering OLED display technology.

On another occasion, an Apple security employee was initially prohibited by Samsung from inspecting a Vietnam-based factory assembling display components for the iPhone X. Ultimately, the pair of companies reached a compromise wherein the Apple employee could be escorted through the facility as long as he agreed to walk without stopping to inspect his surroundings.

As a result of the secrecy, Apple has had trouble learning how Samsung fixes manufacturing problems with iPhone displays. For example, Apple has had to perform more rigorous display tests during product development in order to spot defects than it would, had Samsung cooperated.

More reasons to diversity the supply chain

Interviews and internal documents have shown that Apple hasn’t had much success so far in breaking free from Samsung.

Former Apple workers recall Samsung forcing Apple to accept hundreds of thousands of extra MacBook displays several years ago, despite Apple having lowered its demand forecast for the device. In contrast, according to former Apple employees, most other Apple suppliers bear the financial risk of holding and covering the expense of surplus parts.

Apple has partnered with other display suppliers such as LG and BOE, but Samsung remains the primary supplier, especially for OLED manufacturing for iPhone displays. According to two former Apple employees, LG attempted to provide OLED panels for some iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 models, but Apple informed LG that its screens didn’t satisfy its standards.

Apple has to continue efforts on microLED manufacturing and hopes to introduce a microLED display in the Apple Watch until at least 2024 or 2025, according to two people familiar with the company’s plans. But it will still need to rely on Samsung for many more years.

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