Sony, long a leading player in the television market with its Trinitron cathode ray tube (CRT) technology, is getting serious about the fast-expanding flat-panel television sector. The company has launched a major push into the market with a line-up of eight flat-panel TVs due to go on sale in Japan by the end of this year.
In the company's sights is a market that is forecast to be worth $US15 billion worldwide this year and expected to climb to $US40.6 billion by 2007, according an estimate from market-research company, IDC. Beyond that market, Sony also has a specific company in its sights: the current LCD (liquid crystal display) TV leader.
"Customers in Japan have a strong image that Sharp equals LCD," vice-president of Sony and president of the company's TV group, Makoto Kogure, said. "We'd like to break that."
Sony claims that with the new televisions it unveiled last week its technology can deliver a better picture and richer sound.
At the top of the range is a 46-inch LCD model that the company will sell under its Qualia brand name. The model uses a panel produced by Samsung that is currently the world's largest in commercial production and, perhaps more importantly, an inch larger than the biggest panel being produced by Sharp.
The Qualia 005 TV is also the first in the world to use a light emitting diode (LED) backlight, which Sony claims helps the set deliver a superior picture with truer and richer colours.
That appears to be true. At its unveiling, the new Qualia set was displayed alongside a competitor's model, unnamed but unmistakably a Sharp set because of its case style, and the Qualia set did appear to produce a better picture, at least for the sample images used in the demonstration.
"In the sense of technology we have completely caught up [with Sharp]," Kogure said.
Executive deputy president and chief operating officer of Sony, Ken Kutaragi, went step one further and said his company had not only caught up with Sharp, but overtaken it.
With Sony committed to pushing more networking technologies and with its experience in semiconductor technologies, from now on Sharp would always be playing catch-up with Sony and not vice versa, he said.
In addition to picture and audio quality, Sony is also trying to beat its rivals with an on-screen navigation technology called xross (pronounced 'cross') media bar, or XMB.
The system first appeared in its PSX combined hard-disk video recorder/PlayStation 2 unit and attempts to simplify the dizzying selection of input sources, channels and content available on a digital television.
Sony had plans to put XMB into other products, such as Blu-ray Disc recorders or its upcoming PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld game device, to provide a common user interface onto the network, Kutaragi said.
Eventually, he would like to see a system developed so that new devices automatically appear on the menu of all compatible products as soon as they were plugged into a home network.
Alongside the new Qualia set, Sony also announced several other models including 26-inch, 32-inch and 40-inch LCD models and 37-inch, 42-inch and 50-inch Plasma Display Panel (PDP) models.
Looking ahead, Kogure said he anticipated that both LCD and PDP would continue to sell in the flat-panel market because of their relative strengths and weaknesses. PDP had a cost advantage over LCD at the high end although at other sizes LCD would dominate, he said.
That was because LCD was superior at smaller sizes, it could support higher resolutions more easily and the colour reproduction system could be more easily changed.
Other technologies were under development.
Several companies are pursuing Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens, and Toshiba and Canon are researching Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display (SED). Sony has been working on Field Emission Display (FED) technology for several years but that has yet to reach commercialisation.
"In the next 10 or 20 years there will be many, many different developments and they will co-exist with each other," Kogure said.
"Each has its own merit and demerit. Many products will be introduced and in the end the customer will decide."
Regarding Sony's work on FED, he said development was still underway.
"Technology-wise, with no business or investment issues, in two years it's easy [to produce a commercial FED]," he said.
Sony is researching FED because its the flat-panel technology that comes closest to matching the picture of a cathode ray tube (CRT), Kogure said. "FED's response is very fast and it's very easy to make a CRT-like picture. Power consumption is very low."
Kutaragi also praised FEDs for their warm picture and brushed off a suggestion that development of the technology was proceeding too slowly.
"Sharp started developing LCD [technology] 30 years ago and they started talking about LCD TVs in 1996. It will take time."
Paul Kallender in Tokyo contributed to this report.