For some time now, consumers have been promised a day when everybody has slimline flat-screen monitors with clear liquid crystal displays in their home and on their desk at work. Bulky, heat and radiation generating cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors would be a thing of the past. But the reality is that it has not happened and it is likely to be at least a few more years before it does.
In its latest report on the international monitor market, analyst IDC's findings show that liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors have not reached the phenomenal growth predicted by some analysts, while flat CRT monitors have.
Once reserved for only the high end of companies' respective product lines, flat-screen CRTs are beginning to emerge in more mainstream models, according to Bob O'Donnell, research manager of IDC's PC displays and projectors program. "Flat CRT technology offers one of the most obvious improvements that PC monitors have seen in some time, and we expect the market place to embrace them."
LCD shipments remained low last year, although the number of businesses that opted to install at least a few LCD monitors in highly visible areas did rise. According to the IDC data, the fastest-growing segment in the monitor market is 19-inch CRTs, while the market experienced a glut of 15-inch LCD monitors during 1999.
In Australia, the LCD and flat panel display sector still makes up barely 2 per cent of the total monitor market, yet vendors and key resellers are confident that over the next five years LCDs will move from the high-end corporate and government markets to dominance in the consumer arena.
Those resellers who are catering to the early adopters are finding good profit margins in the volume project market. While LCDs struggled to account for 2 per cent of volume share last year, they did account for 10 per cent by value, according to analyst Inform.
Nobody would argue that price is what is holding the market back. While a 15-inch LCD monitor sells for $1000 to $1500 more than a 17-inch CRT display, despite having almost the equivalent viewing area, the market is going to be restricted.
Apart from their smaller footprint - around 25 to 30 per cent of a CRT - LCD monitors have other obvious advantages. They are cooler, generate little or no radiation and offer noticeably better contrast. However, apart from cost, they also have some disadvantages, particularly for the high end of the graphics market, such as a slower refresh rate and lower top-end resolution. The larger their display area the more their image quality deteriorates, so a high-end 21-inch CRT monitor is not only considerably cheaper than a 19-inch LCD, it also generally provides a much better image.
Another major obstacle is the fact that LCD monitors are digital and most graphics cards are designed for analog CRTs, which means they take digital data from the computer, convert it to analog, then the data has to be converted back to digital with a subsequent loss of quality. Yet new-generation digital video cards are addressing the problem and when they are available the results can be stunning.
There is general agreement among vendors that LCD is the way of the future. The question is how far into the future.
According to NEC national sales manager (Data) Geoff Cottee, LCD is something "we all know will eventually take over. The only obstacle at the moment is the high price. LCD is the way of the future and is the technology that will replace all of the CRT monitors existing in offices at the moment. The price has come down over the last three years but it is not going to tumble because it has taken 15 years for CRT monitors to get to the price point they are today.
"We won't go through a time line like that with LCD monitors - we won't even go through a seven-year time line because product take-up is already happening.
"We will probably see the price coming down by about 5 per cent a quarter this year but it will still take three to five years before it reaches a much more affordable level."
Dipak Kumar, general manager of multimedia for Hitachi, says channel awareness of the benefits of LCD monitors is an important element in improving their sales.
"Resellers should understand the differences between CRT and LCD monitors and their associated benefits. By offering customers the best solution for their needs, resellers stand to gain through increased sales and customer satisfaction.
"LCD monitors can potentially bring project business to those resellers who truly understand their benefits and can explain them to their customers.
"They are not just gaining acceptance in large corporate and government offices, but also in councils and workplaces where ergonomic issues are becoming increasingly important," he said.
"Years ago, everyone predicted that LCD monitors would have superseded CRT monitors by now. Nobody really foresaw that CRT prices would reduce to their current levels, preventing LCD from taking over in the mainstream. Although LCD manufacturing yields continue to improve and their prices continue to drop, CRT will still be with us for many years to come and also has some unique advantages over LCD."
Kumar predicts LCD monitor sales will continue to grow in the corporate, finance and government markets, with the consumer market still focussed primarily on CRT. But as LCD monitor prices continued to drop, they will take increasing market share away from CRT monitors.
Phil Newton, group general manager, computer peripherals division at Mitsubishi Electric Australia, said there was significant global investment in TFT-LCD technology, mainly because of its size and radiation benefits.
He predicts that as global investment increases and with subsequent improvements in mass production methods, prices are set to fall dramatically "to a point where they will be attractive to most power users.
"Distributors should be promoting the major benefits of the technology and looking for existing high-margin niche markets such as banks and so on." Furthermore, distributors should be looking for alliances with high-quality vendors for a long-term return, he adds.
Apple, which offers its customers a choice of two CRT and two LCD monitors, says the LCD monitors create less eye strain because of the lack of flicker and as a rule offer a wider viewing area than CRT.
According to Apple Australia marketing manager Myrna van Pelt, price is the key to the future, but as more buyers come on board and technology improves, manufacturing costs will fall and the benefit will be passed on to the end user.
Norelle Parker of Philips PC Peripherals is confident the market will grow significantly over the next couple of years, but agrees it is price-dependent.
"LCDs have huge potential in the retail environment with increased use of touch screens in areas such as point of sale. There are also exciting possibilities in areas such as airports, hospitals and in the personal transport sectors, as well as for the corporate and home markets."
But, she adds, education is vital for resellers. With regular moves in pricing and product advancement, it is imperative that everyone be kept up to date with the latest industry information."
Panasonic is expecting a 30 to 50 per cent growth in LCD monitor sales this year and 40 per cent of its monitor sales will be LCD.
Chris Lau, Panasonic's senior product manager for computer components, said more than 85 per cent of the cost of an LCD monitor was the cost of the LCD module inside, so the key to getting the price down was in reducing the price of the module.
He said there was a lot of growth occurring in the LCD market because LCD screens were being used in everything from watches to handheld computers, and that was helping drive down the price of modules.
Melbourne-based Multimedia Technologies (MT) is a specialist reseller that is already realising the potential of the market. LCD already accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of the company's business - significantly more than the industry norm.
MT product development manager Andrew Cutting is forecasting that prices at the low end of the market could drop to consumer levels within six to 12 months. In the meantime, he is enjoying the higher return of the current market.
"We do a lot of corporate, government and education deals where we move a fair volume of them on tender or contract. The market is certainly picking up, but we have been waiting for the boom where the price drops to where LCD monitors become attractive to the masses. That certainly has not happened and they remain a specialist item for business and government.
"You are still looking at $1300 to $1400 plus for a half-decent 15-inch TFT screen versus $300 or $400 for an equivalent CRT. So the volume of LCD sales is on contract or tender, where we are given a certain specification to meet. We see it being at least six to 12 months before the 15-inch budget CRT can be taken over by TFTs.
"We are starting to see the indications now that prices at the lower end are falling, particularly if you look at some of the Taiwanese and Korean manufacturers. Prices in the US are already considerably better than they are here. Computer manufacturers in particular are getting into the LCD market, where they are building chassis and buying a panel from a Samsung or Sony and are able to produce an affordable LCD.
"That is what everybody is waiting for and the quality is there," says Cutting.
ASI Solutions [formerly Anabelle Bits] is also a major reseller of LCD monitors with a growing corporate and government market. Craig Quinn of ASI agrees that the 15-inch LCD market is starting to take off, particularly in the project market and across a wide range of users.
He says there is a new market emerging in the local government area as prices of 15-inch models come down, although the larger screens were still very much a niche market.
Both he and Cutting agree there are opportunities for more resellers to enter the market and those who enter it in two years time, when they expect the market to finally boom, will profit.
Hitachi pushes benefits of Plasma TVs
By Martyn Williams
TOKYO - Hitachi is bringing wall-hanging PDP televisions down in size and price. The company will begin selling a new flat-screen 32-inch PDP (Plasma Display Panel) high definition television in April, one of the smallest yet to hit the market. Along with the reduction in size, the price will also fall to somewhere between 500,000 yen and 600,000 yen ($7800 and $9300).
Hitachi said it decided to make the 32-inch model because that size had emerged as the most popular among large-screen TV buyers. Until now, most manufacturers selling PDP-based televisions have been using 40-inch or 42-inch panels. These have been selling in small quantities to companies for use as display panels in building reception areas and other public spaces, and occasionally to wealthy videophiles - applications which demand a large screen size.
The decision to sell a smaller set is part of the company's attempt to increase sales by getting the sets into more ordinary homes, which generally don't have the space for a 42-inch television. This is expected to in turn help reduce price.
The company's move to popularise its PDP products comes a month after Sharp began selling a new range of liquid crystal display (LCD) television sets at lower prices. Sharp said at the time that it plans to switch completely away from cathode ray tube (CRT) sets to LCD televisions by 2005.
The television comes in two parts: the monitor section and audiovisual control station, which includes the tuner and associated picture-processing circuits. The separate parts also help Hitachi in marketing the sets overseas, where the company needs only to change the AV control station. Image resolution on the new panel is 850 x 1024 pixels and the entire display unit is just 9cms deep.
In the future, Hitachi said it plans to produce a 37-inch high-definition plasma television and is expecting to use the European market as a launchpad to worldwide sales of PDP-based televisions.
Sharp unveils new LCD technology
By Martyn Williams
TOKYO - Sharp has developed a new type of active-matrix liquid crystal display (LCD) that uses substantially less power than current models.
Display power consumption is one of the single largest drains on batteries in portable devices and the new display could help lead the way towards mobile electronics products with longer battery life.
Compared to a conventional active-matrix display, which is refreshed between 60 and 70 times per second, the ULC (ultra low power consumption) technology only sends signals when the screen image is changed. This results in a drop in power consumption to one-third conventional levels for moving images and one-thirtieth for still images, said Arisa Mori, a spokeswoman for Sharp.
Mass production of TFT (thin film transistor) displays featuring the ULC technology will begin in July this year. The company has not yet decided on pricing. Sharp is one of Japan's leading manufacturers of LCD panels.