Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

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The Display Continuum

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

The traditional version of the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”.  The expectation is, of course, that such persistence will pay off in eventual and well-rewarded success.  However, some time ago I heard another version of this saying that is perhaps equally valid, “If at first you don’t succeed, give up -- no sense making a fool of yourself”. 

Should we take a statistical approach and do something in between?  Or will that just lead us down the path to a life of mediocrity?

What led me to contemplate these two versions of folk wisdom are the recent efforts of major companies to re-introduce products that seem to be in this mode of “try and try again” but with no clear vision of their eventual success.  The two products that I am specifically thinking about are the “electronic book” and the “tablet computer”.  Both have been around for a number of years, but have not yet made any significant inroads in replacing either conventional books or conventional mouse-and-keyboard computers.  E-book introductions have, over the years, been tried by a number of companies while the tablet computer has been mostly a Microsoft dream.   Now Amazon.com is making another run at the e-book and Microsoft is suggesting that the time may finally be right for the tablet computer. 

Why is it that some products catch on almost immediately and others languish to eventually just fade away?  And if a product is not a success initially can it become a success at a later time?   Flat panel displays certainly have not needed any great promotional efforts to make them a success.  Consumers fell in love with the thinness of these displays even while the images were inferior to those produced by traditional CRTs. 

It seems that those products able to achieve almost immediate acceptance are the ones that then continue to grow and flourish.  Conversely, I can’t seem to come up with any noteworthy examples of products that languished and then finally took off.  Sometimes there are price barriers that limit growth, but that is typically only a temporary and obvious obstacle.    

For a number of years, I have wondered what fundamental problem the e-book will solve that would make it a highly desirable product.  For example, the laptop computer made “anywhere” computing possible.  That was immediately important to travelling professionals and soon became important even to students.  The only problem I can see the e-book solving is to provide reference libraries to those who need them during their normal business activities, e.g. attorneys.  However, the laptop computer can do this function at least as well and perhaps better.  So then we are left with a device that is supposed to replace a conventional book – one downloaded copy at a time. 

A conventional book is generally not any heavier than an e-book, it’s impervious to all kinds of abuse, and it can be passed on to others for further use or stored away on a shelf as a visible reminder of knowledge gained.  The printed text is easy on the eyes, the paper pages are soft and comfortable to hold, and browsing and skipping around are easy to do.   Would the e-book be desirable because it’s cheaper?  Or could it be beneficial because access to a new download is easier than buying the print version?   Somehow it just doesn’t seem to have that key ingredient causing consumers to rush out and buy one.  Is it possible we are still missing something here?  Is there something unique that will come along to change the dynamics of this technology?  Certainly the displays used in these products are by now quite adequate and readability is not an issue.   Battery life seems to be just fine as well.   So what will it take?  Or is it one of those products that will attract a small following but never become a mainstream technology?  It seems that the more time passes the more difficult the path to success becomes. 

The tablet computer may be in this same precarious spot.  Is there a unique problem that it solves?  If so, what is it?  Could it be a replacement for my laboratory notebook?  If so, will I be able to do everything I now do on a paper page, but even better and faster?  What useful new capabilities will the tablet computer provide that I do not already have on my laptop or desktop computers?  I have seen Microsoft managers holding these tablets during presentations and using pen-like styluses to access their PowerPoint slides.  But watching them cradling their tablets in an uncomfortable bent-arm position for an extended time did not cause me to want to rush out and get one.  Will Microsoft come up with something that these gadgets can do that we cannot already do more easily?  If not, then this product too may end up in the junkyard of wonderful but useless ideas. 

It’s actually quite amazing that when consumers find a new product they “simply must have” how willing they are to put up with all kinds of imperfections.  The early laptop computers had terrible looking displays.  They were monochrome with low contrast and of limited size.  Basically, they were just barely useable.  But since this was the only way to get portable computing, we were willing to accept these deficiencies. 

Today, we see the same amazing user adaptations with text messaging.   The keyboards are tiny and as a consequence we have had to develop incredible thumb dexterity.  The multi-letter buttons also lead to abbreviation skills that would make a court reporter proud.  Many of us can no longer live without a continual stream of communications coming in and going out.  “Have you called your girlfriend today?”  “No, but I sent her three text messages”.  Definitely, a new approach to romance!  

It seems that consumers are actually amazingly capable at selecting what we find useful and conversely what we can just as easily pass up.  But if consumers are so smart and quick to pick up on interesting new products, why is it so difficult for those of us in the product development end to predict what will be the next winner?  For example, most of us in the display community thought that image quality would be far more important than the thinness of a flat-panel display.  There were numerous market analyses that concluded if the price differential would be more than 20% then a CRT would continue to be selected over a flat panel.  How wrong was that?

If we cannot adequately analyze consumer behavior using our current understanding, would we be wiser to observe which products have easy acceptance and which struggle in their early introductions?   Are the early struggles a good indicator of what will happen later on?   It will be interesting to see if the e-book and the tablet computer are good test cases for this hypothesis. 

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic and others.  As we enter the New Year, we will certainly have many exciting opportunities in the display business.  The better we can see our future path, the more predictable and enjoyable our successes will be. 

In the coming year, my wish is for all of you to have as much success as you can appreciate and in as few attempts as possible.  Otherwise, this “try and try again” stuff can get old in a real hurry.