The Next Battlefield in Computer Displays

Companies are rethinking products to provide innovation in the peripherals marketplace

Without doubt, the rising popularity and market penetration of the World Wide Web continues to wreak planning havoc in the hardware and software industry. It sends executives, manufacturers and developers scurrying back to their drawing boards to refashion strategies, retool processes and rethink products. Among those affected most visibly are the display companies, the makers of computer monitors using cathode ray tubes and flat panels, especially in the areas of miniaturization and space-saving equipment. In fact, attention is shifting to the computer display as the next battlefield of innovation and competitiveness in the peripherals marketplace.



Nokia

A perfect example is the Finnish company, Nokia, a global telecommunications company and Europe's largest maker of mobile telephones. Last March, the company launched its eye-opening Nokia 9000 Communicator -- billed as the world's first all-in-one communicator -- in Hannover, Germany. Just two months ago, Nokia introduced the PCS1900 version at a trade show in San Francisco; it will be available in the United States this June.

Bringing the display of the World Wide Web down to the size of your palm, the impressive product combines digital voice, data services and personal organizer in a package that looks very much like a science fiction compact case for powdering your nose. Users can send and receive faxes, e-mail and short messages as well as access Internet services and corporate and public databases. For good measure, there is also an electronic calendar, address book, notepad and calculator. The operating system, called GEOS, was developed by Geoworks, which worked with Intel on the 24 MHz, 386 processor and flash memory contained in the product.

At the other end of Nokia's product spectrum is the computer monitor, a business the company has mined for nearly 14 years by continually enhancing the old standby CRT and serving the original equipment manufacturer market ilk of IBM, Dell, Zenith, Hewlett-Packard and Sun, among others.

Like many of the other 35 monitor makers worldwide, Nokia buys the CRT from one of about 12 major manufacturers, the majority with headquarters in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. It then adds value, for example, chassis and electronics as well as special features such as bi-directional microphone with echo cancellation, speakers with sub-woofers for improved sound quality and a video camera for videoconferencing or video transmission over the Internet (such as VDOLive at http://www.vdo.net/).

When asked whether the company plans to join the emerging market for flat panel displays, Mac Motraghi, president of Nokia Display Products, replies, "Well, the downfall of the CRT has been predicted since its introduction in the 1940s. It still enjoys a strong market and the quip in the industry still applies: 'Old CRTs never die, they just fade away.'"

Motraghi admits the company has plans for FPD, not in the lower end, for example, low-resolution monochrome (less than 800 by 600 pixels), but in the high quality (above 800 by 600) color liquid crystal display for the desktop market. He quotes a few figures to make his point: "The 1997 forecast for the U.S. market in stand-alone LCD desktop monitors is only 25,000 units. One of the reasons is cost. You can get a high-quality 15-inch CRT monitor for around $450; a comparable FPD would cost from $3,500 to $4,000."

Among the systems integrators that Nokia works with are Compucon Corp. New Hope, Minn., and Entex Information Services Inc. Rye Brook, N.Y. He simply advises integrators wanting to work with Nokia to focus on marketing and customer support and service. "These days the shelf life of a new monitor product is between milk and yogurt. We launched the first monitor with sound in the U.S. market in 1994 and shipped it the next year. Not long after, other companies were shipping monitors with speakers. Thus, the advantage in the market will come from [systems integrators] knowledgeably supporting and serving customers."

Sharp

At the other end of the market is Sharp Electronics, the leader in LCDs. The company never worked with CRTs and introduced its first LCD in 1973, a calculator. It predicts that large-format, thin-film transistors and color, super-twisted nematic LCDs (see sidebar) will begin to replace CRT desktop monitors this quarter and could capture at least 5 percent of the desktop monitor market or 3 million units by 1997.

Sharp recently announced an agreement with Sony to produce large-screen flat panel displays and introduced a 40-inch LCD on a trial basis in Japan. (Many industry observers consider 40 inches to be the upper limit of CRTs.) Last July, Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp. launched the industry's first fully featured flat panel LCD desktop computer with the LCD made by Sharp. The suggested retail price? Around $3,000.

According to Joel Pollack, director of sales and marketing for display products of Sharp Electronics Corp., Camas, Wash., notebook PCs now make up about half the North American market for Sharp's LCDs.

In Pollack's operating unit, the main customer is the original equipment manufacturer, from computer and industrial manufacturers to those making test and measurement as well as transportation equipment. In its LCD production, the company makes the LCD module and the peripheral electronics.

While Pollack readily admits the cost advantage of CRTs versus LCDs in many applications, he hastens to add, even as he sidesteps details, that in 1997 the market can expect "dramatic" announcements about passive matrix LCDs.

For systems integrators, Sharp uses many field application engineers ready and willing to work with integrators. He cautions, however, that the company has distributors who can manage integrations as well as partners specialized in dealing with specific markets, such as the government or military.

The challenge ahead, notes Pollack, is not technical, but economic. "The issue for us in product development and introduction is to match fitness for use, quality and price, especially with the expectations aroused by the World Wide Web, increasing bandwidth and enhanced multimedia. Sharp wants to focus on products that work well in their intended environments, whether in the office or at the point of purchase. In many cases, that means finding the proper demand and volume."

Panasonic

In the middle of the market is Panasonic (a unit of Matsushita Electric Corporation of America), which recently introduced its PF70, marketed as a first-of-a-kind CRT with a flat surface to eliminate distortion and increase brightness.

According to Mike Marusic, marketing manager of the Display Monitor Division of Panasonic, Secaucus, N.J., the company will later this month ship its new PanaSync LC40, a digital multiscan, 14-inch LCD monitor with a maximum resolution of 1,024 by 768. Only 2.5 inches thick, it features a thin-film-transistor, active matrix screen. He adds that a 17-inch model, the LC70, will ship next summer.

"Over the next couple of years, prices will come down dramatically," says Marusic. "Part of what's driving this market is desk space. When you move from 14-inch to 17-inch to 21-inch, there is almost a 1-to-1 ratio of screen size to monitor depth. With the continuing attention on [network computers], displays will become more and more the focus."

The point is important for Marusic, who already sees a strong government market for 17- and 21-inch monitors. In the corporate environment, he sees the demand higher for 21-inch monitors.

On the outer edge of technology, the company plans to introduce at Comdex, the networking and multimedia conference in Las Vegas Nov. 18-22, a prototype 21-inch plasma-based FPD with a true computer display, that is, a 4-by-3 aspect ratio.

Panasonic will also introduce a 26-inch plasma display around video with a 16-by-9 aspect ratio, much like you see in movie theaters. This product integrates Matsushita's purchase earlier this year of Plasmaco Inc., Highland, N.Y., which developed state-of-the-art, advanced plasma display panel technologies. Expect to see various plasma display panel applications, including wall-hanging TVs and TV monitors and computer display monitors, among other products.


MicroTouch

In a different niche, tied directly to the current Web frenzy, are the products of MicroTouch Systems Inc., Methuen, Mass. The world's largest maker of touch-input devices and software recently rolled out its Prospector Public Browser. The company also produces an input device named ThruGlass, which can detect a touch as well as project audio through 1 inch of glass or plastic. In principle, a business could place a kiosk inside a store window and still allow users to interact with it simply by touching the storefront window.

Prospector is a Web browser that allows users to navigate with a touch screen. Applications include use by businesses to showcase products and services in what the company calls WebStations, kiosk or tabletop touch monitors. One interesting feature is SurfControl, which lets you restrict user access to specific Web sites or parts of Web sites.


ViewSonic

On the high end, for graphics professionals, CAD/CAM, desktop publishing and professional in-house presenters, are the products of ViewSonic Corp., Walnut, Calif. Included in its stable is the new 21-inch P815 computer monitor, which boasts the highest resolution (maximum 1800 by 1440) and refresh rates in the industry.

The company also just launched its ViewPanel line of flat panel monitors with the PV140, a 14-inch active matrix LCD targeted to medical, government, financial and education markets. Its low emissions allow its use safely in clean rooms and hospital environments. Like similar products from other companies, it has low power consumption, a maximum of 40 watts.

Resources:

-American Display Consortium (http://ptcoe.marc.gatech.edu/adc.html)

-ATIP (Asian Technology Information Program) Flat Panel Display Project (http://www.atip.or.jp/fpd/)

-Center for Display Technology & Manufacturing (http://dtm.eecs.umich.edu/)

-Emerging Stars: Display Related Sites (http://www.positech.com/positive/research-sites.html)

-Nokia (http://www.nokia.com or http://www.nokia-americas.com/)

-Panasonic (http://www.panasonic.com/)

-Planar Systems Inc. (http://www.planar.com/)

-Society for Information Display (http://www.garlic.com/sid/)

-Stanford Resources Inc. (http://www.webcom.com/sr/)

-Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, "Flat Panel Displays in Perspective" (http://www.ota.nap.edu/pdf/data/1995/9520.pdf)

-United States Display Consortium (http://staging.kpmgpa.com/Focused/nafpd/usdc1.html)


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