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Samsung Predicts OLED Years Away, UHD Ready to Roll

An exclusive interview with HS Kim, head of Samsung TVs


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When Samsung's HS Kim speaks, the industry listens. As executive vice president of the company's visual display business, Kim has been instrumental in helping Samsung maintain their lead as the world's best selling brand of flat-panel TVs. sat down with Kim in Seoul last month for an exclusive interview, in anticipation of today's new product announcements at CES.

Among the surprising revelations, Kim voiced skepticism about the immediate viability of OLED televisions, but expressed optimism for 4K UHD proliferation in 2014. He also offered insights on how Smart TV interfaces will develop, and why Samsung will not be entering the content-creation business any time soon.

For Samsung, UHD will arrive first—then OLED.

Last year we saw the first consumer-ready models featuring two major innovations in television tech: UHD and OLED. Each promises a huge leap in picture quality from today’s Full HD televisions.

UHD refers to screens that have at least four times the number of pixels as Full HD, greatly increasing sharpness. A number of UHD TVs shipped in 2013, from manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Sony, Sharp, and others. They were met with generally positive reviews, but currently suffer from a lack of native UHD content. Sure, you can drop a few grand on a UHD TV, but what can you watch on it?

Samsung is boldly experimenting with form factors in UHD, but Kim says that OLED will have to wait.

OLED refers not to the number of pixels, but to their composition. New organic materials allow for a richer, more dynamic viewing experience than current standard LED TVs. Only Samsung and LG sold OLED TVs in 2013, and while reviews were exceptionally positive, the prices kept them out of buyers' homes. MSRPs started at $9,000 went up from there.

"Not many consumers tried to purchase OLED TVs at that price," stated Kim. "Price was our greatest barrier. So our attempt to expand the market didn’t really go well."

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The unfriendly pricing, he acknowledged, is primarily due to difficulties plaguing Samsung's OLED manufacturing process. And he doesn't think the company's issues will be resolved soon. "I'm really, really terribly sorry to say this," he said, "but it will take more time... I believe it will take around three to four years."

That's a big change from his earlier predictions. Last year, he stated that it would take two or three years to bring OLED to the mass market. The steep revision indicates that manufacturing issues are more significant than previously thought.

"I'm really, really terribly sorry to say this, but [OLED] will take more time... I believe it will take around three to four years."

However, Kim remained positive on the immediate prospects of 4K UHD televisions. While there’s little content available at present, key content providers like Netflix and YouTube have announced intentions to begin UHD streaming in 2014.

Kim compared the UHD transition to the adoption of high-definition television less than a decade ago, and predicted that "the only difference between Full HD and UHD is that the UHD trend will take place faster."

In order to expedite the transition and foster growth in the UHD ecosystem, Samsung is creating strategic partnerships with content providers. At its CES 2014 press conference, Samsung announced that UHD streaming apps from Amazon, Netflix, M-GO, Comcast, and DirecTV would all be available in the coming year.

How much smarter can smart TVs get?

Beyond the physical components, the other rapidly evolving aspect of television tech is smart TV platforms. These sophisticated interfaces grow more feature-rich each year, with dozens of options for streaming content already built in.

"From the consumer's perspective, when they watch TV it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Google or an Android or a Samsung TV."

However, reviewers have been critical of user interfaces seemingly ported wholesale from smartphones to TVs. Web browsing, Twitter, and other apps that require extensive text input have generally been met with frustration when a remote control—rather than keyboard or touch screen—is the primary input device.

Samsung has been on the forefront of smart TV interfaces, but now with several years of market research under its belt, it may be ready to make some changes.

Television, Kim states, is a "lean-back" experience. Unlike other devices, TV is watched from a distance, so getting the user interface right is critical. Previous Samsung TVs have debuted gesture and voice commands, and the new TVs for 2014 will continue to refine those features.

Samsung has been working to improve voice and gesture control for its Smart TV platform.

Samsung's mobile division is, of course, also in deep partnership with the Android platform, producing products like the Galaxy S4—the top-selling phone of 2013. Rumors of (and wishes for) a Samsung Android television have been kicking around the internet for some time, but while Kim did not entirely dismiss the possibility, he didn't seem particularly keen on it.

"From the consumer’s perspective," he stated, "when they watch TV it doesn't matter whether it's a Google or an Android or a Samsung TV."

However, he left the door open by concluding, "If Android TV can provide the best optimal viewing experience, then Samsung will provide that."

Could Samsung be the next Netflix?

With millions of homes watching Samsung smart TVs every night, it seems natural to wonder if the company is exploring the idea of cutting out the middleman and getting into the content-creation business itself.

"We don't care to enter into an area that we don't do well."

Kim was absolutely firm on this point. "We don't care to enter into an area that we don't do well. Which means that we don't have any experience in the content area... I am not convinced that we can earn profit in the contents business."

With a new year ahead and many new and competing TVs, Samsung appears poised to retain its lead.

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