Recent research suggest that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) may no longer be able to say its products have the best displays. Since hitting its pinnacle in 2010, when Apple introduced the iPhone 4 and the term “Retina display,” the company’s ability to best the competition has begun to decrease, and now competing tablets have more than matched Apple’s one-time industry-leading screen resolution. In particular, several well-respected technology experts have docked the long-awaited iPad Mini with Retina for not delivering as high a quality screen as some of its lower-priced competitors. The company has lost ground partly because its early success set such a high bar, partly because of its ongoing feud with Samsung (SSNLF.PK), and partly because of a bad bet it made on a new display technology.
While the tension between Apple and Samsung has by no means eased, the rivalry no longer carries quite the same acrimonious note as it did earlier this year, when the iPhone maker’s stock was trading approximately $100 below current levels and about one-third below its all time high of $705.07, which was hit in September of 2012.
At the time, Samsung was preparing to unveil the Galaxy S4 and Apple was receiving a lot of flack for failing to wow consumers and technology analysts as it once did. The often-cited reason for this failing was the absence of Steve Jobs — the legendary co-founder of Apple who built the company’s brand cache — by delivering products that revolutionized how humans communicated with each other, how they consumed media, and how they lived on a day-to-day basis.
The fact that Apple’s new product pipeline seemed to be lacking a category-defining device spawned almost doomsday critiques of the company. John Gruber, author of the Daring Fireball blog, explained in March why those extremely negative-leaning assessments were flawed. “The desire for the ‘Oh, how the mighty Apple has fallen’ narrative is so strong that the narrative is simply being stated as fact, evidence to the contrary be damned. It’s reported as true simply because they want it to be true. They’re declaring ‘The King is dead; long live the King’ not because the king has actually died or abdicated the throne, but because they’re bored with the king and want to write a new coronation story.”
Even though the company’s latest Galaxy was not initially met with the most laudatory reviews, Samsung, more often than not, benefited from the desire for a new coronation story. The South Korean company did report its highest third-quarter earnings ever in late October, with smartphone and chipset sales driving the record-breaking numbers.
Similarly, the latest iteration of Apple’s flagship iPhone produced some record-breaking numbers, selling a record $9 million units in its launch weekend, a figure that beat the 5 million iPhone 5s sold during the device’s September 2012 debut weekend and surpassed analysts’ expectations. However, with the release of the iPad Air and the second-generation iPad Mini last month, the focus of Apple comparisons have shifted from smartphones to tablets and the pessimism that dogged the iPhone earlier this year has now latched onto the iPad, the device whose introduction changed the entire computing industry.
In both the case of the iPhone and the iPad, Apple’s earlier releases set the bar so high that subsequent versions have appeared less impressive to investors. In an article titled “Apple’s iPhone 5S, 5C debut: We live in boring times,” CNET’s Charles Cooper wrote, “marketers will do their best to convince you otherwise, but smartphones now belong to a maturing industry with little sizzle.” His argument may be key to interpreting the collective shrug Wall Street and technology experts gave in answer to the company’s release. Not only was Apple expected to outmatch all the product releases it has made in the past and disprove the industry perception that Samsung has narrowed the innovation gap with its largest competitor, the company had to contend with the fact that it may have hit a technological wall.
But with the iPad, Apple did not hit a technological wall. Instead, the company took the wrong technological turn, a rare event for a company that once set the technology curve. The change of Apple’s position in the world of technological innovation was made clear in an analysis conducted by Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate. While the iPad outmatched Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Nexus, Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle HDX received much higher reviews, especially for its ability to maintain contrast in high ambient light and for its color accuracy.
The reason for the iPad’s poorer performance in those categories is because Apple chose to use IGZO, a relatively new technology for its LCDs. IGZO, short for indium gallium zinc oxide was once seen as the future of display making because it promised less expensive and lower power displays with high brightness. But instead, IGZO is failing to capitalize on that promise; LTPS — or low-temperature polysilicon — is currently the technology of choice. Even Apple has used LTPS in the iPhone for a long time.
This is not to say that IGZO will be written out of history, only that the technology is not yet producing top-quality tablet displays. In fact, the new iPad Mini was ranked third in a key category — color reproduction — by AnandTech. While the review was generally positive, the tablet was criticized for having the “same color gamut as the standard iPad mini.” The bigger issue for AnandTech was that, “There are other smaller tablets in this price range that do offer sRGB coverage (e.g. Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HDX 8.9). You don’t get the same visual punch you do on the iPad Air.”
However, Soneira wrote a much more harsh assessment. “The iPad mini with Retina Display unfortunately comes in with a distant 3rd place finish behind the innovative displays on the Kindle Fire HDX 7 and new Nexus 7 because it still has the same small 63 percent Color Gamut as the original iPad mini and even older iPad 2. That is inexcusable for a current generation premium Tablet.”
Apple could have had the means to secure tens of millions of LTPS screens for its iPads had the company’s relationship with Samsung not disintegrated from a close partnership to opponents in a intellectual property war.
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS