So what happened to Sony’s 27″ OLED television?

Sony's 11

In May 2008, chairman and chief executive Sir Howard Stringer said that, within the next twelve months, Sony would launch a 27″ television based on OLED – organic light emitting diode – technology.

More than twelve months later, with no 27″ version released and Sony showing only 21″ prototypes, it’s time to ask what happened.

OLED is the great hope of Sony’s struggling TV business: an all-new technology that would blow away the Taiwanese LCD makers with screens 0.3mm thick, 1,000,000-to-1 contrast ratios, and ultra-low power consumption. Tetsuo Urabe, a Sony engineer who has worked on OLED for a decade, explains the technology in this FT interview.

Sony therefore caused a stir in 2007 when it launched the world’s first commercial OLED television: the XEL-1, an 11″ screen priced at Y200,000. In February 2008, the company said it would spend Y22bn ($225m) on a new OLED production line, and in May 2008 Sir Howard built the momentum further at the All Things D conference when he said, “This will come out in a 27″ version fairly soon,” and when pressed added, “Twelve months. Within twelve months.”

Since then, nothing. Sony’s response is somewhat defensive: it is still committed to OLED, it never actually promised the 27″ screen, everything is to plan, and it has neither recession problems nor technical problems. The company will not say how much of the Y22bn has been spent.

It is likely, however, that Sony is still wrestling with the two big barriers to large-but-cheap OLED screens: laying down the pattern of red, green and blue chemicals without spraying them through a mask – masks are too fragile for large sizes – and making the backplane of transistors that turn each pixel in an OLED screen on and off.

Small OLED screens are starting to make steady progress, appearing in Sony’s new X-Series Walkman, for example, and Microsoft’s Zune HD. There are also rumours that Sony will launch a new OLED TV at the IFA show in Berlin in September, although their only source appears to be “industry insiders” in the Korea Times.

All of which is a reminder that OLED has huge potential and it might only take another year to fulfil – but another decade is almost as likely.